All About Estates

Jam Needs a Plan: Estate Planning for Pets

Estate planning for pets has made for some very wealthy animals. Remember the US hotel heiress Leona Hemsley? Known as the Queen of Mean, she left $12 million out of her estimated $5 billion estate to her Maltese lap dog, Trouble. The dog’s inheritance was reduced to $2 million, but still. That was more than enough for the $100,000 spent on Trouble’s care each year.

Today’s richest dog is the German Shepard Gunther VI, who lives in a Miami beach house once owned by Madonna. He’s said to be worth nearly a half billion dollars. As the great grand dog of Gunther, the III, whose owner died in 1992, Gunter VI comes from a 40-year, six-generation lineage and has a savvy set of wealth managers looking after him.

Why Consider Pets in Estate Planning?

In late January, Dr. Iris Garfinkle wrote a prescription for a lonely patient that read: Puppy of choice, with walks twice daily and lots of love. We are familiar with seeing pets as companions, service dogs, and support dogs, and we understand the benefits to our mental and physical health. And pet therapy continues to be studied for patient care in ageing and memory-related diseases.

Caregivers of those with Alzheimer’s or dementia disease also find that pets and other forms of non-drug therapy can reduce common types of agitation, such as pacing, verbal outbursts, or even physical expressions. At McMaster University, recent research confirms that pets can help manage irritation in people with dementia.

But sadly, in some cases, a much-loved companion animal may outlive its person, or a person may change living situations and be unable to keep the animal.

So, who will take care of the pet? It’s a pesky issue for families to consider and budget for as part of their planning. In my own family, my father had a German Shepherd. Rex was his best friend and went everywhere with him. Dad insisted that Rex be boarded at a local kennel when he went into the hospital. After extended hospitalization, it became clear that Dad could not live alone and would have to go to a retirement home for extra support. Unfortunately, the retirement home would not allow dogs to live there, although they did allow cats, birds, and fish. In any case, my family and I spent many hours trying to find a local boarder who would take the dog to visit Dad every few days. Finally, we agreed that the dog would be happier running free on a farm, and Dad agreed to the dog being adopted.

It was a costly lesson – we paid expensive boarding fees only to learn that Rex couldn’t live with Dad anymore. People consider pets family, so we worry about their welfare. In our practice, we include pet planning in our standard planning methodology, such as determining the following.

  • Who will look after the pet?
  • How will they look after the pet?
  • Who will make veterinary-related decisions?
  • Who will pay the cost of care?
  • How and what funds will be set aside for the animal’s care?

Does this list sound familiar? These questions are like planning questions in other areas of one’s life.

Estate Planning for Pets

Owning a pet is expensive. According to the Ontario SPCA, rescuing a puppy costs around $4,500, and annual care for a dog is $3,700. The average lifespan for a dog is 10 to 13 years. You will spend about $3,100 to get and care for a kitten, then $2,500 yearly. And the average lifespan for a cat is 12 to 18 years. It can also be expensive if you must board a pet on an interim basis. For example, boarding fees for a dog run from $45 to $75 per night or $1350 to $2250 per month plus HST. These costs should be built into an individual’s plans.

Can you set up a trust fund for a pet in Canada?

“In Common Law Canada, pets are considered personal property,” says Diana Leopardi in her blog post, Planning for Pets.  Property cannot have a trust fund, so the dog cannot receive funds directly. However, estate planners suggest setting up a “pet trust” with a trustee receiving the funds to care for a specific animal is possible. With all the legal and tax considerations, it’s wise to get expert advice.

In conclusion, it’s only fair that Jam has an estate plan. As Jane Goodall says, “You cannot share your life with a dog…or a cat, and not know perfectly well that animals have personalities and minds and feelings.”

About Susan J. Hyatt
Susan J Hyatt is the Chair & CEO of Silver Sherpa Inc. A leader and author in the ‘smart aging’ movement, she is a member of the Canadian College of Health Leaders and the International Federation on Ageing. She holds a post-graduate certification in Negotiations from Harvard Law School/MIT and an MBA from Griffith University in Australia. She also holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Physical Therapy specializing in critical care/trauma from the University of Toronto.


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