What happens to your pets if you die unexpectedly?

Steve Wartenberg
For Columbus CEO
Geoff and Lauren Kunkler with their 9-year old chow mix, Mowgli.

Pets provide millions of families with love, companionship and loyalty.

“I see people all the time who think of their pets as their children,” says Jay Michael, a Columbus attorney who specializes in estate planning and trusts. 

In some cases, these “children” can outlive their pet parents. This is why a growing number of people, regardless of their net worth, leave money to their pets in their wills, or create a pet trust as part of the estate-planning process.  

“It just makes a lot of sense, depending on the type of animal you have and how old you are,” says Geoffrey Kunkler, a Columbus attorney who specializes in estate planning. He has helped several clients create a trust for their pets. “I have a client with a bird whose life span is 50 or 60 years and will almost certainly outlive my client. So, they want to make sure their bird is well cared for.” 

And so, these attorneys recommend: Have a plan in place that spells who will take care of your pet or pets, and carefully calculate the amount of money they will need to properly take care of these pets over the course of the animal’s remaining years. Without provisions in a will or a trust, a pet can wind up in a shelter. Or worse. 

Perhaps the most famous, or infamous, pet inheritance story took place in 2007 when New York hotel and real estate heiress Leona Helmsley died and left $12 million, the bulk of her estate, to Trouble, her Maltese. Family members sued, and a judge eventually cut Trouble’s inheritance to $2 million. 

The publicity from this case put pet trusts in a negative light. 

“They’re not just for the rich, they’re for people all over the financial spectrum who own a pet,” Kunkler says. He and his wife have a dog, Mowgli, who is a rescue, and a horse. And their parents have set up trusts to provide for both, just in case. 

Geoff and Lauren Kunkler's dog, Mowgli.

Wills 

It makes sense to plan ahead. Then again…“Nobody wants to talk about it,” Michael says of the inevitability of death. “The line I hear all the time is, I’ll need a will in case I die. There is no in case.” 

Pet owners have a couple of basic options: wills and trusts.  

In a last will and testament, a person can designate a specific person to receive one or more of their pets, and leave this person or persons a set amount of money. While the courts guarantee the pets and money will go to the designated person, the court is then out of the loop and doesn’t check in to make sure the pet is being cared for properly and the money is being used only for pet-related expenses. Because of thus, it’s vital to name a person that you trust, such as a family member, who knows and loves your pet, in the will. 

Trusts 

According to the Ohio Revised Code of 2006: “A trust may be created for the care of an animal or animals alive during the settlor’s lifetime. The trust terminates upon the death of the animal, or upon the death of the last surviving animal covered by the trust.” 

“Trusts function like a will, but are private contracts,” Kunkler says, adding a pet trust can be a subsection of an overall trust or a separate trust.  

The trustee oversees all the monies, and reimburses the person or persons taking care of the pets after they have provided receipts for things such as food, regular and emergency veterinary care and boarding, if and when necessary. A pet trust can be quite specific. For example, it can specify a specific brand of cat or dog food, the number of visits to the veterinarian a year and the specific veterinarian. 

The cost of drawing up a trust varies. “I would say the cost of an estate plan, that can include a living trust or a pet trust, along with a will, power of attorney and advanced directives, varies from a low end of about $1,200 to a high end of $2,500, perhaps more, depending on the complexity and which law firm you hire,” Michael says. 

Trustee in action 

Allison McMeechan is an attorney in the Cleveland office of Reminger, and she is the trustee for a deceased client. “I prepared an estate plan for an elderly woman in her 80s who was unmarried and didn’t have any children,” she says. The woman did have a cat, Halle, and designated a close friend, who knew and loved Halle, as her custodian, as part of the trust.  

“She left a decent amount for Halle, I think it was about $50,000,” McMeechan says, adding that over the ensuing years, she checked and approved all the receipts the custodian sent her, and then reimbursed the custodian. 

Halle, who was well cared for, recently passed away. At the time, there was still about $20,000 left in the trust. And so, according to the wishes of her deceased client, McMeechan divided the money between the woman’s relatives and a couple of her favorite charities. 

Charitable option 

Many people make provisions in their wills and trusts to leave money to their pets and to animal-related nonprofit organizations they have a connection to, such as the local animal shelter or Humane Society. Thekla “Teckie” Shackelford, and her husband, Donald, love their pets and the veterinarians who take care of their pets. 

“We’re devoid of pets right now,” says Teckie, 86, who recently “had to put down our two beloved Havanese, right before Christmas. It was devastating. But we’re on the list to get another Havanese in April.” 

Because of her age and love of her pets, Teckie plans to create a trust for her next Havanese. “I have two people in mind, and I’ll leave enough money; I don’t want it to be a financial burden for them,” she says. The trust also will include a sizeable donation to the Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine, which the Shackelfords have generously supported for 20-plus years. 

“I just can’t imagine that my dogs wouldn’t be loved and cared for if I wasn’t here,” Teckie says, adding that “so often, you see people my age living longer when they have a pet, caring for a pet is so important and adds so much to your life.” 

Steve Wartenberg is a freelance writer. 

Pet trust basics 

Source: American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals 

• Identify your pets, with photos, microchips, even DNA samples, to prevent fraud. 

• Describe in detail your pet’s standard of living. 

• Calculate the amount of funds necessary to maintain this standard of living for the remainder of your pet’s life. 

• Designate where any remaining funds should go after the death of your pet. 

• Provide instructions for the final disposition of your pet.