Who'll take care of Fido?

Want to ensure your darling pooch will still be pampered when you’re not around? There are ways.

PORTFOLIO POINT: Family pets that survive you don’t need to lose their pampered lifestyle.

Forget the family home, superannuation or the art collection – what some people hold dearest is their pet. History is littered with examples of wealthy individuals leaving their fortune to their pet. In 2007, the Queen of Mean, US Socialite Leona Helmsley, bequeathed $US12 million to her Maltese dog called Trouble. Trouble only lived for three more years (or 21 dog-years) but what a time that would have been!

Conversely, Michael Jackson’s famous pet, Bubbles the Chimp, was inadequately covered in the singer’s will and is now destitute, living in an animal welfare centre supported by public donations.

With 65% of households owing a pet and the significant increase in one-person households over the past 20 years, the issue of how to look after your closest companion on death is being asked more frequently these days.

Unlike Leona Helmsley, this is not an issue of leaving all your wealth to your cat or dog; these days it’s more about ensuring sufficient instructions or plans have been made in your will to ensure the ongoing care and comfort of your pet when you’re no longer around.

There are several ways to provide for your pets in your will.

Legacy to a friend or relative

This is an ideal way if you can arrange for someone to take in your pet and care for them. Under this option, its best to seek the approval and agreement with the chosen friend or relative prior to your death. You’ll also need to include within your will a legacy of an appropriate amount that you would consider would cover the ongoing costs of housing and care of your pet. Ultimately, the request would be non-binding, which is why it’s preferred to choose a trusted friend or relative, but for most this is the simplest and cheapest option.

Pet trusts

This is simply a standard trust set up under the terms of your will, where the terms and rules of the trust allow for the care and maintenance of a named beneficiary, your pet. You’ll need to ensure you do your maths right and allocate sufficient funds to cover the care of your pet for its lifetime.

With this option make sure you cover all typical pet expenses like food, registration and veterinary fees. As this is a trust structure, you’ll need to appoint trustees and ensure the wording in the deed is clear and defined in regards to distributions, etc. Here a good estate planning specialist will ensure you get the legal requirements right.

Legacy pet programs

Under this option, instead of using a friend or relative you can enter into a contract where you leave a bequest in your will to an organisation that run programs that provide care and shelter on a permanent basis or will find a suitable new home for your loved pet. Usually these are the large animal protection societies such as the RSPCA and animal welfare leagues, but there are also several other charitable organisations.

You’re required to make a reasonably large bequest to the organisation; as a rule the minimum is normally about $7000.

Sadly for some, the preferred option is having the pet put down. This option is reasonably common in Australia and avoids the potential stress on the pet from moving into a new home or where pets are expected to suffer grief following the separation from their owner. The ancient Egyptians took their pets with them.

The majority of these options require you to have a will that has been correctly and legally drafted. Time spent discussing and structuring your options with a qualified estate planning specialist is essential to ensure you are aware of all the practical and legal implications.

Russell Lees is a senior adviser at Donnelly Wealth Management.

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