By Linda M. Toga, Esq.
THE FACTS: About a year before he died, my father bought a puppy that he adored. His name was Gizmo. My father’s will provided that $15,000 was to be left to the person who agreed to take care of Gizmo after my father’s death. My father told me that he set aside $15,000 because he assumed Gizmo would live a long time and that it would cost that much to cover his food and vet expenses.
Immediately after my father’s funeral, my brother Joe took it upon himself to bring Gizmo to his house. A week later, Gizmo was hit by a car and died. My brother is now insisting that he is entitled to the $15,000 since he “agreed to take care of Gizmo” after my father’s death. I feel he should be reimbursed for whatever expenses he incurred in connection with Gizmo’s care and burial but that the balance of the $15,000 should be divided between all of my father’s children like the rest of his estate.
THE QUESTIONS: Is my brother entitled to the full $15,000? Does it make a difference that Gizmo’s death could have been prevented if my brother had him on a leash?
THE ANSWER: I cannot say how the Surrogate’s Court would handle this situation because a strict reading of the language of the will suggests one outcome while fairness dictates another. An argument can certainly be made that your brother is entitled to the money because he took Gizmo in and cared for him, even though it was for a very short period of time.
On the other hand, if your brother’s decision to let Gizmo out without a leash led to the dog’s death, an argument can be made that he breached his duty to take care of Gizmo and should not get the money. You can also argue that your father intended the money to be used for Gizmo’s care and not as compensation to a caregiver.
Regardless of which position may prevail in court, the issues raised by what has happened underscores the importance of pet owners being very specific about their wishes when it comes to their pets. Simply setting aside money for a pet’s care is not sufficient. Pet owners should include in their wills a pet trust to be administered in accordance with the pet owner’s wishes. If your father’s will had included a well-drafted pet trust, the question of who is entitled to the $15,000 would be addressed.
I suggest that pet owners arrange in advance for someone to take care of their pet in the event they are unable to do so either because of disability or death. Possible caregivers should be asked if they are willing and able to take the pet in and care for the pet on relatively short notice. Once a caregiver is identified, family members and other potential caregivers should be advised of the arrangement to avoid misunderstandings. Informal arrangements usually work well if they are not long term.
For example, a neighbor may agree to watch a dog while its owner is in the hospital or immediately following the owner’s death. The intent is simply to ensure that the pet is cared for until long-term arrangements can be made. Money is usually not addressed in these types of informal arrangements.
When it comes to the long-term care of a pet, I suggest that my clients include in their wills a pet trust. How much money the owner wishes to earmark for the pet’s care is clearly one of the things that must be addressed but it is only one of many. The trust should also identify the person who will become the pet’s caregiver and set forth the types of care the pet is to receive.
For example, does the owner want the pet groomed on a monthly basis and, if so, by whom? Does the pet need certain types of food or should certain foods be avoided? Does the pet suffer from any ailments that require medication or close monitoring? If so, the pet’s vet should be identified. Providing this sort of information will help ensure that the pet gets the care that it needs from people with whom it is comfortable.
In addition to addressing the care a pet will receive during its life, a pet trust should provide the caregiver with instructions with respect to the handling of the pet’s remains after it dies. This information is useful to the caregiver who will certainly want to honor the pet owner’s wishes.
A pet trust should also set forth the amount of money the executor of the estate is to distribute to the trustee of the pet trust. The job of the trustee is to then distribute the funds in the trust to the caregiver as needed to be used for pet’s benefit. The owner should state what types of expenses are covered by the trust and whether the caregiver is entitled to compensation in exchange for caring for the pet.
The pet trust should also provide instructions for the trustee with respect to the distribution of the trust assets that remain after the pet has died. Had your father included such instructions in his will, you and your brother would not be at odds now.
Pet owners who want to create a pet trust should discuss their ideas and concerns with an experienced estate planning attorney.
Linda M. Toga, Esq. provides legal services in the areas of estate planning and administration, wills and trusts, guardianship real estate, small business services and litigation from her East Setauket office.