Is Your Cat in your Will?

three cats in mountain background

In the past few generations, everything about cats and how we relate to them has changed. For instance:

  • Most cats now live indoors,
  • Many cats have "human" names,
  • We consider our cats a part of our family (not property)

Unfortunately, in most states, the law still considers our pets (dogs and cats) to be "property" or "livestock". It follows then a pet cannot inherit money or a person's estate. Also, a pet cannot be the beneficiary of a binding contract. This means an owner cannot buy a life insurance policy and make the cat the beneficiary to care for it during its lifetime. Therefore, it is important the provisions we make for our beloved feline companions before our death are proper and legal.

Laws governing Wills, Trusts and Estates differ from state-to-state. Consulting an attorney who specializes in estate law is important to make sure your wishes about your cat are legal.

It is possible to leave your pet to a trusted friend. Talk to that friend to make sure they want to take on the duty of caring for your cat. Arrange ahead of time, a life insurance policy with that person as the beneficiary (or beneficiary of your estate) to pay for the costs of caring for your beloved pet. Usually, you cannot make a condition the money "must" pay for the cat (or the person "must" care for the cat). Once your friend agrees, pay attention to any changes in that person's life which might affect their caring for your pet (i.e., moving, having a baby).

It is always best to leave written instructions for the care and disposition of your pets, even if they may not be enforceable. However, depending on which state you live in, a Trust can legally provide for the care of your cat.

Pet Trusts

garfield with trust paperA Trust is a legal way to serve a specific purpose, such as providing money for the care of your cat. Usually, Trusts are to pay for: scholarships, college, and provide for minor children. To set up a Trust, you need a "Trustee" and a "Caregiver". The Trustee is a person that you choose to oversee the care of your feline companion. However, a Trustee does not have to physically care for the pet, they can:

  • Have the cat boarded;
  • Find it a good home; or
  • Make other arrangements for the care of the cat.

By naming Trustees and Caregivers in your Will, it creates a legal duty making sure your kitty continues to enjoy the lifestyle to which she has grown familiar with. The Caregiver is the person who is actually providing day-to-day care of your cat.

As of 2016, all states have a Pet Trust law. See a list of states (and the applicable statute) that allow Pet Trusts.

In general, Pet Trusts contain the following terms:

  • Identifies the pet (or pets) - to prevent fraud, consider getting pictures of your cat and having it microchipped;
  • Name and address of Trustee;
  • Name and address of successor Trustee (in case the original Trustee cannot act as Trustee);
  • Name and address of caregiver;
  • Name and address of successor caregiver (in case the original caregiver cannot care for your pets);
  • Describe your pet's standard of living and care (nutrition, including any specific foods you may want the cat fed, any health issues, type of home and routine);
  • Require the Trustee to make sure the caregiver is providing the cat with regular veterinarian check-ups and care (i.e., Once a year, twice a year);
  • Sets forth the amount of money in the Trust (generally, this amount should coincide with the pet's current standard of living, food costs, veterinarian care and any extraordinary expenses because of health issues);
  • Decide the amount of cash or assets to cover the expenses of running the Trust (ex. Fees incurred by the Trustee, attorney consultations, etc.);
  • Specifies what happens if the caretaker does not take care of the pet (name another person or an attorney to take the caretaker to court);
  • What happens to any remaining funds after the cat dies (choose a beneficiary who will receive any remaining funds in the Pet Trust); and
  • Instructions for the burial or cremation of your pet once it passes.

Consider creating a Pet Trust while you are still alive in case you become sick, injured or unable to care for your pets any longer.

An estate lawyer will charge a fee to draw up a valid Trust (and Will) protecting you and any pets while making sure it is legally binding. An attorney can file the Trust with the Court on your death. You can appoint the attorney as the person to make sure the caretaker of your cat is performing the duties of the Trust. (An attorney can take the non-performing caretaker to court to enforce the terms of the Trust).

There are many books and on-line resources to help set up a Trust and to write a Will. However, make sure you are using the forms necessary for the state in which you live. Be aware, that no book (or on-line resource) can take the place of an attorney and it is advisable that an attorney review any documents that you may prepare.

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