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Leaving Your Estate To A Pet

An Estate plan will usually involve leaving your assets to family members, friends, and/or charities. However, what about those furry members of your family?

Although not common, an increasing number of Canadians are writing provisions for their pets in their Wills, to ensure that their “fur-babies” are well taken care of after they pass.

A recent Ipsos Public Affair research paper on pet ownership indicates that 50 per cent of Canadians own a pet. A pet owner’s love seems to have few financial bounds, as the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council of Canada calculated that in 2013 pet owners spent $6.5 billion on their pets.

Internationally, some very wealthy animal heirs have made the headlines, including:

  • Hotel heiress Leona Helmsley died in 2007 and left her Maltese a $12 million trust fund, while disinheriting two of her grandchildren;
  • Austrian Countess Carlotta Liebenstein left her entire fortune ($80 million) to her dog, Gunther the IV; and
  • Although still with us, Oprah Winfrey has reportedly set aside $30 million of her estate for the care of her four dogs.

Although these are very extreme examples, it demonstrates the love that owners have for their pets and the lengths to which they are willing to go in order to care for them, even after death.

Pet planning is particularly important in the case of unusual pets that live many years or require special care. For example, there have been recent news stories about giant pet turtles in Japan that can live for hundreds of years, while certain breeds of parrots have lifespans of between 40 and 60 years. Further, pets that may be worth significant value (e.g. championship dogs, thoroughbred horses) could be the subject of competing interests if proper provision has not been made in a Will.

However, those with common pets and more modest means can also include their pets in their estate planning. This is particularly true for the elderly, who at later stages in life may have an especially close attachment to their faithful companions and would rest easier if they know their pets will be taken care of according to their wishes.

In Canada, pets cannot be named as beneficiaries of an estate directly, as they are considered personal property. However, without proper estate planning, pets are simply viewed as part of a deceased’s estate and given away as a gift.

As such, provisions can and should be made in Wills to ensure that a furry, feathered or scale covered family member is taken care of after its owner passes.

One such mechanism is to ensure that a trusted friend or family member is given the responsibility to care for the pet after the owner is deceased.

Further, a specific purpose trust or “pet trust” can be set up to care for the pet after the owner passes. The purpose of a pet trust is to put aside funds to care for the pet’s future needs. The funds would be held in trust by a selected trustee (typically the executor or new owner) and the money would be distributed to the person who receives your pet on an as needed basis.

Some people love their pet’s more than some family members. However, be warned that disinheriting a family member in favour of your pet would likely not succeed in British Columbia due to the Wills variation provisions in the Wills, Estates and Succession Act (“WESA”).

WESA provides that if a Will-maker dies and does not make adequate provision for the proper maintenance and support of his/her spouse or children, those family members can apply to court to vary the Will. In other words, there is no chance in BC that a pet would be able to inherit an entire estate to the exclusion of other family members, unless the other family members agreed with it and did not try to vary the Will-maker’s wishes.

If you have concerns about the care of your pet following your death, consider setting out your wishes in your Will. This will leave your family with clear direction as to your wishes, and it will provide you with piece of mind knowing that your pet will be well taken care of in your absence.