Are You Putting Your Cat in Your Will?
Everything about how we relate to cats has changed in the last generation or two. Americans increasingly name cats the same names as humans; mine are named Mina and Seigfried, though we mostly call the latter one Ziggy.
We also live with our cats much more closely than we once did -- our own cats are increasingly indoor-only, a practice many people are following because of the dangers of outdoor life. We look at our companion kitties as members of our family, not as property.
The law, unfortunately, has not done quite as good a job of acknowledging the expanding role of pets in the lives of their humans. In most states, pets are property. This means that, while it’s a popular trope in movies, you can’t leave money to your cat in your will. So, if you care about your cats, you need to make a plan about what to do for your kitties while you’re still alive.
Before going further, I'll address a few preliminary issues. First, wills, trusts, and estates, and the laws that govern them, vary wildly from state to state. I'll discuss them in the context of California law, but the laws of your community may be different. Second, although I am a law student scheduled to take the bar exam in July, I am not a lawyer, and nothing I say should be taken as legal advice, other than I can help identify issues that might interest you. Third, if you read this after I have been admitted to the bar, then it shouldn’t be taken to establish any sort of attorney-client relationship.
Now, let's talk about our pets.
In California (and most states work similarly) you can’t leave money to an animal. Likewise, animals cannot be the beneficiaries of a binding contract. When you pay for pet grooming, you’re paying for a service for yourself. And while you may be able to seek damages if the groomer hurts your pet, you can’t complain that kitty doesn’t like his haircut. So, I can’t just buy some life insurance to keep Mina in the kibble and scritchies to which she has grown accustomed.
You can leave a pet to a person that you trust, however, and you can ask that person to care of your cat. You can leave money to that person to pay for the costs of maintaining your beloved kitty. On the other hand, you can’t condition that the money must pay for the cat, or that the person must care for the cat. You can certainly include such language in your will, but, in California, it won’t be enforceable. As a note, if you really trust the person, this will probably be fine. Most people do this, and the cats lead happy lives.
If you have someone who you trust to care for your cats, talk to that person. Make sure the person is willing to care for your fur child, and pay attention to changes that could make such an agreement impractical. A new baby may intervene, or newly discovered allergies may render such a promise impossible. The care for your beloved companion will depend entirely upon what this person chooses to do, so make sure that it is as easy as possible to provide good care.
If you want a means of leaving money to care for a pet, you can establish a trust. A trust is a legal instrument with a goal to serve a specific purpose. Trusts exist to fund scholarships, to maintain buildings, and to take care of people. You can also have a trust to take care of a cat. Establishing a trust requires a trustee. The trustee should be a person you trust (heh) to take care of your cat, but here’s the difference: A trustee doesn’t necessarily need to physically care for the cat. That person can have the cat boarded, find it a good home, or otherwise make sure your beloved pet is taken care of. The advantage of the trustee over the person named in your will is that the trustee has a legal obligation to make sure your little kitty continues in the life to which she has grown accustomed.
Pet trusts are currently allowed in 46 states. To see whether your state is one of them, click here. A pet trust is an enforceable legal document, which contains all of the following:
- What animals are covered
- Who takes care of the animals
- How much money will be kept by the trust to care for the animals
- Special instructions regarding care
- Who goes to court and enforce the trust if the caretaker doesn’t care for your kitty
- What happens to any remaindered money in the trust after kitty passes on
Also, you can include a stipulation regarding what happens if you can’t take care of your pets before your death.
Not all trusts require paying a lawyer, but a good estate lawyer will have a reasonable price to look over your trust and make sure that it is binding and includes all necessary details. Also, an attorney can make sure the trust is filed -- and that attorney might be the one you assign to pay attention to what happens to your cat after your death, and to go to court to enforce the demands of the trust.
There are books and online resources to help you establish a trust, but make sure that you’re using ones for your state. Also, remember that no book can take the place of a trusted competent professional. People from California should check out Nolo Press. Other states have similar resources.
Do you have a plan for your kitties should you pass away before them? Let us know in the comments!