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Estate planning for Fido: How to make sure pets live the good life if you go

If four-year-old Gracie’s parents die, a trusted family member receives $10,000 from their estate to care for the Bernese Mountain Dog and poodle mix.

Gracie’s owner Suzanne Willett is part of a growing number of Canadians who include their furry family members in estate plans to ensure they’re well cared for if something happens to their humans.

Such arrangements offer assurance animals won’t land in shelters and alleviate the financial pressure on whomever inherits the animal, but experts say more formal methods provide the least risk of going awry.

Willett didn’t expect her will would mention her Bernedoodle, but Gracie quickly won her over.

“She just melts your heart,” said the 47-year-old dog owner, who doesn’t have kids. Willett hopes she’ll outlive her dog — but she’s making care provisions, just in case.

“Who wouldn’t want to make sure that she is taken care of should we not be around?”

When Willett and her husband purchased an estate-planning service from a law firm at a silent auction, they asked the lawyer to help craft a care plan for Gracie.

The couple finalized their will in April. It stipulates that their niece will receive $10,000 to take and care for Gracie, or any other pets the couple may have at the time of their death. If the pets die before the money runs out, their niece can keep the remainder.

“There’s peace of mind that she’s going to a loving home,” said Willett.

Suzana Popovic-Montag asks all her new clients about pets when she starts their estate planning.

A small, but growing percentage of pet owners express interest in making provisions for their pets, said the managing partner of Hull & Hull LLP, a Toronto-based law firm that specializes in estate litigation and planning.

Provisions range from relaxed, informal arrangements to rigid, structured ones, with varying levels of risk. 

Canadian law considers pets property, she said, so owners can’t bequeath houses, money or other assets to Fido directly. Instead, they must select a family member, friend or other person to become their pet’s guardian.

Owners could simply ask someone and come to a written or verbal agreement without involving lawyers or financial planners, said Elizabeth Dorsch, head of trust and estate services at BMO Private Wealth.

“It’s probably the most common planning for a pet,” she said of such arrangements.

A slightly more formal version provides an amount of money for that person through a will — with the understanding they’ll use all or some of it to care for the animal.

Dorsch suggests clients create a budget that shows how much it takes to care for the pet every month and multiply that figure by its expected lifespan. They should add in some extra money for veterinary bills and some unexpected expenses, and may want to consider leaving a “thank you” sum just for the caregiver.

But a problem could arise in both scenarios when the moment comes for the appointed person to take the pet. Their circumstances may have changed in some way to make them incapable of owing a pet, she said, like finding out they have an allergy or even deciding they’re not compatible with their new housemate.

“There may be a moral obligation, but there’s no legal obligation for them to do that.”

A more iron-clad method involves creating a purpose trust within a will, she said.

That involves selecting a caregiver and trustee — ideally two different people to avoid conflicts of interest.

The pet owner can leave behind specific instructions for the caregiver, such as how frequently the pet should visit the vet and guidance around end-of-life decisions. The trust pays specified amounts out to the caregiver and the trustee oversees that they follow the trust’s rules.

Popovic-Montag recommends people select an alternate caregiver and trustee as well. She recalls a situation where a person died and the individual appointed to care for their pet decided they didn’t want it. The executor of the will had no choice but to place the animal in a shelter, she said.

“There wasn’t enough contingency built in,” she said.

Alternates afford a second option if the first choice changes their mind, dies or otherwise can’t fulfil their intended role.

For folks who don’t have a willing benefactor to take their animal, some humane societies operate stewardship programs. These typically include a contract that allows the owner’s estate to surrender the animal to the society after the owner’s death along with a specified sum of money. The organization then finds a foster home for the animal and eventually an adoptive one, with the promise the pet won’t be euthanized.

Entering a stewardship program or creating a purpose trust can be part of a person’s overall estate planning that includes instructions for their other assets. Willett’s will, for example, also includes provisions for charities.

While the process may seem daunting or expensive, experts say it’s important not to leave loose ends upon death.

“We spend our whole lifetime amassing our wealth,” said Popovic-Montag, “You’d think you’d want to be able to direct where your money ultimately goes.”

Follow @AleksSagan on Twitter.

Aleksandra Sagan, The Canadian Press

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