When a lawyer, accountant or financial planner asks you about your Will, they will typically ask about the distribution of assets (such as the family home, cash or cars) to beneficiaries (usually spouses, children and other friends or family). Where do pets fit into this equation?

At law, pets are considered a ‘chattel’, or an item of personal property. We know that pets are so much more than just an item, however. In this blog post, we set out your options for deciding what happens to your pets when you die.

Bequest in a Will

As a pet is a ‘chattel’ for the purposes of your Will, you can bequeath them to family or friends as you see fit. For beloved family pets, this could mean bequeathing your dog or cat to one of your children when you and your spouse have died.  You may also have a close friend or neighbour who is familiar with your pet and would be happy to take on their care if something happened to you. We recommend discussing such a bequest with the intended beneficiary first, to ensure they are willing to take on the responsibility. A beneficiary can always say no to a gift in a Will, and it is important to ensure that your pet is not left ‘high and dry’ in such circumstances.

A Trust for your pets?

You may have seen sensational headlines in the media, such as “Woman leaves $4.3 million fortune to her cats and dogs”. In Victoria, you cannot leave assets to an animal under your Will, as they are not a legal person who can inherit the property. You can, however, set up a Trust for the purposes of caring for your pets.

You would need to appoint a trusted person to be the Trustee of the Trust, such as a friend or relative. You may leave an amount on Trust for your pet based on your estimate of their expenses over their lifetime, such as food and vet bills. If you are intending to leave a large sum in Trust for your pet, it is important to think about who will receive any excess funds on their death. You may, for example, wish for any excess Trust funds to be donated to an animal charity.

If you have bequeathed your pet to a friend or relative, you may wish to consider making a bequest to such person elsewhere in your Will as a token of your appreciation. Such funds would not be directly for the use and benefit of your pet, but instead would be a gesture of thanks to the person who will care for them.

Memorandum of Wishes

We often recommend that clients make a Memorandum of Wishes to cover non-binding instructions or guidance which they wish to leave with their Will. This document can also include non-binding instructions as to the care of pets, for example:

  • If my husband and I both die while our children are still under eighteen, we have appointed my sister as their Guardian. We would like our family cat Coco to stay with our children for emotional support.
  • It is my wish that my dog Ringo is rehomed with a loving family. I would like my Executors to first ask if any of my children would like to take him, but if not, I would like him to go to a young family with a backyard.
Rehoming your pet

You may not have a suitable person in your life to help care for your pets on your death, but you still wish for them to be looked after. Several organisations offer programs where you can register your pet during your lifetime to be taken in by such organisation on your death.

One example is the RSPCA Home Ever After program. In this program, you register each of your pets with the RSPCA, including details of their medical conditions, likes and dislikes. You also make a direction in your Will that you give your pets to the RSPCA to rehome using the service. The RSPCA will then provide you with resources to ensure your Executors know what to do on your death. There is no cost for the service, but the RSPCA asks that you consider making a donation to the organisation in your Will as thanks.

Our furry friends (and feathered friends, and scaly friends) can be as much a part of our families as our human relatives. Even though they may be treated differently at law, you can still ensure that your Estate Plan provides the best possible future for your pets. Our team is on hand to update your Will, create a Memorandum of Wishes for you, or assist you in any way to give you peace of mind. Contact us today for a no-obligation discussion.