Does Your Estate Planning Include Your Kitty?

This is updated from an earlier two part article

estate planning and your catWe all love our pets and want them to be loved and cared for, but what if your pets outlive you? Can you truly count on someone to take them in or make good decisions about care? This article previously appeared in the Orange County Register and if you didn’t read it or haven’t made any provisions, please read more …

I have thought about Pet Estate Planning quite a bit over the past year.  It started during an office visit I had with a wonderful client who told me he was having a surgical procedure that he might not survive.  I wasn’t sure when the surgery was being performed but a few days after the office visit, I was very sad to hear that he had died. He lived with many cats and fortunately he had made plans to have his sons take care of these animals.  They followed through with his wishes, but it has been a lot of work for them.

Have you done any formal pet estate planning?  Chances are that you haven’t.  What would happen to your pets if you died?  If you lived alone, animal control services in the area where you live would pick up your pets if you died.  They would then contact family to see if anyone was willing to care for the pets.  If they couldn’t find someone and if your pets were adoptable, they would try to place them.  If the pets were old, sick, or had behavior issues that would make placement difficult, then the pets could face euthanasia.  Think of how stressful, scary, and potentially life threatening this situation could be for your pets.  For this article, I interviewed two attorneys, a rescue organization, and two centers that offer “retirement” homes for cats.  Planning for your pet’s care in your absence is something you should definitely consider.

“You cannot automatically count on family members to take over your pet’s care,” says Colleen McCammon, president of the Animal Assistance League of Orange County.  Pet and family member health issues, other pet’s in the home, pet restrictions where someone lives, and pet behavior issues all complicate whether a family member could take in your pet.  Although family members might come out of the woodwork when money and property are at stake when a relative dies, there is not much interest in the pets that are left behind.  This makes me think about a former client, a single woman, who died of breast cancer in her 40’s.  She was a successful person who owned a condo and two cats.  She had wrongly assumed that her relatives were going to take her cats.  She did not have any formal documents drawn up, and when she died, her family wanted to euthanize her cats.  They were excited though about selling her condo and getting the proceeds.  Fortunately a friend of hers interceded and found new homes for the cats.

Brian Chew, an attorney in Irvine, counsels his clients to be concerned about their pets in their general estate planning.  He recommends creating a Pet Trust provision in your Revocable Living Trust.  A Pet Trust is a formal way to ensure pet care.  The trust would be administered by an assigned Pet Trustee, and this individual would need to be informed and aware of their assignment.  If they don’t do their job, the trust is hard to enforce.  You can also nominate a Pet Trust enforcer (someone other than the Pet Trustee) to help ensure that the funds are used on behalf of the pet.

California Probate Code states that “A pet cannot be a beneficiary under a Will.”  You cannot leave millions of dollars to your pet as was the case with New York billionaire Leona Helmsley when she left $12 million to her Maltese named Trouble in 2007.  Provisions to provide for a pet in a will are not legally enforceable in California.

“Provision for the care of a pet can be made by establishing a trust, by making a conditional gift, or by coupling an outright gift with a precatory request that the gift be used for the care of the pet.  If a trust is established, it is an honorary trust and cannot be enforced, since there is no beneficiary to enforce it,” says attorney Ronald Wiksell of Santa Ana.  He recommends making a gift to a named beneficiary, who will actually assume care of the pet, and coupling it with the care request using the following verbage:

“I give the sum of __________ (specify amount) to ____________(name of beneficiary).  It is my wish and I request that __________(name of beneficiary) protect and care for my ____________(description and name of pet) in the same manner as I have done during my lifetime.  This request is precatory only, and not mandatory.”

Estate planning needs to cover you, any spouse, children, and pets.   Attorney Brian Chew thinks there are three main points to consider:

  1. Who is in charge and are there backups? These are the trustees, guardians, or beneficiaries and you need to talk to these people so they know they are being named.
  2. How much? For your pets you need to think about current pets and their expenses and how much is needed to cover future health care as they age. What happens to any residual funds that have been allocated to pet care after the pet dies?  Specify a charity?
  3. Backup plan – Should you purchase pet insurance? Will the trustee be able to live in the same place as your pets? Do you need to pay for the trustee’s moving or living expenses? In addition to estate planning if you die, what would happen if you became incapacitated and could no longer care for your pet?

How much money should you think about allotting for cat care?   Probably about $1500 per year of the pet’s additional life expectancy.  As cats age, their healthcare needs and costs rise.  An average cat lives 15-17 years.

One organization that frequently counsels families who have lost loved ones and don’t know what to do with the surviving pets is the Animal Assistance League of Orange County.  AALOC has their own no kill facility in Midway City, licensed for 50 dogs and 85 cats.  The Animal Assistance League of Orange County works closely with Orange County Animal Services but is a separate entity.  This organization helps with pet adoptions and with providing education to the public through a Help Line.  If someone dies and AALOC is sent photos, a bio on the pet, and health history; they will do their best to help place the pet.  If a purebred pet needs placement, they work with specific purebred rescue groups.  They do not have a formal pet estate program, but if their facility was properly designated in a trust, they would take in the pet.  They do not have a set monetary contribution for care.  For more information go to http://aaloc.org/ or call 714-891-7387.

There are two Orange County organizations that offer retirement facilities for cats—The Blue Bell Foundation (www.bluebellcats.org) and The National Cat Protection Society (www.natcat.org).   They both have established programs for taking in cats whose owners can no longer care for them.  If you are interested in one of these groups as an option for cat care, you would need to work with your estate planning attorney and the organization directly to properly set up the terms.  You would want to visit the facilities and feel comfortable about their work.

Although they are non-profits and run on donations, these organizations have expenses including staff, food, facility maintenance, vet care, and drugs in order to provide high quality care.  They will provide reasonable long term medical treatments to their feline residents but would not provide services such as kidney transplants, chemotherapy, or radioactive iodine therapy.   A cat that needed these services would require additional funding as part of a residency agreement.

It’s fantastic that there are special organizations that can help when an owner can no longer care for their cat.  Your friends, family, and local animal control services will do what they can, but the best way to make sure that things are handled properly is to work with a estate planning lawyer and make formal arrangements ahead of time.  You can designate funds and a pet beneficiary or you can retire your cat to facilities such as The Blue Bell Foundation and The National Cat Protection Society.  A hand written “will” won’t legally suffice when it comes to pet care.

After I did the research for this column, I know that I have some work to do to plan for my own cat’s future.  I hope that this information helps you plan for your cat’s future.

Copyright © 2015 The Cat Care Clinic

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About Dr. Elaine Wexler-Mitchell

Dr. Elaine Wexler-Mitchell is the owner of The Cat Care Clinic in Orange, CA

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