Estates & Wills & Trusts

Do you need a ‘pet-nup’?

By Paul Russell, AdvocateDaily.com Contributor

Owning an animal is a privilege and responsibility, so owners need to make arrangements for their pet’s care in wills and possibly even in prenuptial agreements, says Cornwall wills and estates lawyer Michele Allinotte.

“Though many people may not realize it, pets are defined as property in Ontario law, so they need to be dealt with as such when you die or become separated or divorced,” says Allinotte, principal of Journey Law.

She says she always asks clients about their animals when creating a will, though some people say they don’t feel they need these provisions to be formally stated, as it has already been discussed with family members.

“Others want to specifically name the person they think would be best to handle their pets, as they don’t want there to be any confusion, as a dispute about care will cause stress for the animals,” Allinotte tells AdvocateDaily.com.

According to a story in The Sun, a law firm in Britain claims that one-quarter of pet owners have plans in place as to what happens in the event of a breakup, while one in 20 signed a written “pet-nup” going into the joint ownership of an animal.

“Obviously, the emotional attachment to pets can be huge, which is why we see so much upset over who gets to keep them when a couple breaks up,” British lawyer James Maguire is quoted as saying. “But we find if a couple agrees to matters upfront, they usually stick to this.”

If someone is bringing a pet into a relationship or if a couple is jointly purchasing one, Allinotte says it is a good idea to address what happens if the relationship ends, particularly with horses or other animals of significant value.

“As much as we hate to think about it, our pets have a monetary value as well as an emotional value,” she says. “While it may feel heartless to address the monetary value when you are entering into a relationship, that is something that should be discussed.”

If people are designating a caregiver in their wills, Allinotte urges them to consider if that person needs to be financially compensated for their efforts.

“There’s a real cost to caring for animals,” she says. “If the person receiving your pet doesn’t have significant means, that can be a real problem.”

Allinotte says some elderly clients recently adopted a pair of puppies, even though they realize the dogs will outlive them.

“In their will, they provided a lump sum to the person who will be taking care of their pets when they die,” she says. “Dogs and cats can live to be 16 years old or more, and the cost of veterinary care and food over that time will be considerable, so there has to be a provision for that.”

Unlike child support, Allinotte says there are no real guidelines to how much money a pet caregiver will need , but she urges people to look at the costs realistically.

“The last thing you want to do is create a hardship for the person who is going to be caring for your animals because that’s heartbreaking,” she says, noting animals sometimes have to be put down because there is no provision made for them after their owner dies.

Planning ahead is especially important when dealing with larger animals such as horses, Allinotte says.

“We look at the life expectancy of the animal, and at the average cost of boarding and feeding, then multiply that by however many horses there are, as people with one horse often have more,” she says.

“That amount can either be given as a gift to that person through your will, or you can attempt to create it as a trust, though it may not be deemed a legitimate purpose for a trust,” Allinotte says.

In all cases, she says people need to talk to potential future caregivers and make sure they agree to be designated as receiving the animal in the will.

A history of the animal’s health, plus the name of its veterinarian, should also be provided to the pet’s new owner, Allinotte says.

“The person looking after the animal needs to get in touch with the vet to ensure there is ongoing continuity of care for the animal,” she says.

Allinotte says some people specify in their wills that they want their animal’s ashes buried with them.

“Those ashes are property, and if you have had a pet for 15 years, you don’t want their ashes to go into the garbage when you die,” she says.

Allinotte says one client had instructions in his will about how the urns of four previous pets were to be buried alongside four different family members when they died.

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