While leaving behind part of your fortune to an animal may seem ludicrous to some, estate planning attorney Erach F. Screwvala of Screwvala LLC, knows that to many pet owners it makes legal sense.
“Most pets are seen as a part of the family, and as such, it is not uncommon for people to set aside a part of their estate for their pet to ensure their care and well-being once they pass away. It is often celebrities and socialites that allocate significantly large amounts to their pets, for example, Oprah Winfrey supposedly has put aside $30 million for her dogs,” Screwvala told PEOPLE. “However, smaller bequests of anything between $5,000 and $100,000 are relatively common for the average person, depending upon the type of pet and its anticipated needs.”
For those animal lovers who agree that setting aside a sum of money for their pets, or instructions for their care, sounds reasonable, Screwvala has a few tips based on his own experiences.
“I would definitely recommend seeking advice from an attorney that specializes in estate planning and an attorney who understands the laws where you live as they differ from state to state. I would consider all available options, including leaving money, selecting a beneficiary and setting up a trust. It would be my recommendation to have a provision in the will that details the distribution of any monetary sum after the event of the pet owner’s passing. The legal proceedings that may ensue could be burdensome if preparations aren’t made accordingly,” he advised.
There are several different approaches you can take to protect your pet after you pass.
- List a Beneficiary: This is a chosen caretaker that will inherit your pet after you die. Along with choosing a beneficiary, many pet owners put some money aside for the new caretaker to use to ensure their pet has a comfortable life. Screwvala does warn that a provision like this one might not be enforceable in some states.
- Create a Pet Trust: “Preferably as part of a revocable living trust,” Screwvala noted. “This will cost more to set up, but will provide more certainty that your pet will be cared for in precisely the way that you want. It is critical to fund a pet trust adequately, so that the trustee has ample funds to execute your wishes.”
- Find an Organization: For those who don’t have someone to care for their pet after their death, Screwvala suggests finding an animal organization open to caring for a pet for the rest of its natural life. Of course, it is important to contact this organization to ensure it’s willing to be part of an estate plan before making any choices.
“In my professional opinion, the best way to protect your pet after you pass is to leave enough money to ensure their care and chose a loving beneficiary – a caretaker or organization – to provide that care. There is no need to leave amounts like $300,000 for a single cat or dog, but by planning reasonably and leaving the appropriate provisions, you can ensure that your beloved companion will be well taken care of after you pass,” Screwvala said.
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Just because he doesn’t think $300,000 is necessary, doesn’t mean the estate planning lawyer hasn’t seen owners leave behind lavish gifts for their pets.
“One that really left an impression was the inclusion of a diamond studded dog collar and walking leash set. It was an unusual request, but definitely a wise decision because of the value of the set. As you can imagine, the genuine diamonds made the collar and leash incredibly valuable,” Screwvala said, however, if the dog collar was encrusted with laboratory grown diamonds I would advise against because synthetic diamonds are of no inherent value. He also added that he had a different client who wanted to “include a wardrobe of designer animal outfits” and another who wanted to “include a provision of an annual photo shoot by a professional photographer for their furry friend.”
But when it comes to cold hard cash, the largest sum Screwvala has ever arranged to be left in an estate for a pet is around $15,000.
“This is a small amount compared to the supposed $30 million that Oprah Winfrey has left in her will for her dogs,” Screwvala noted.