Few of us want to consider our own mortality and plan for death and beyond. As responsible pet parents it is important to acknowledge how vulnerable our furry babies will be when we are no longer here. We must consider which options are available to protect our pets and start putting plans in place as soon as possible.
In South African law, as is the case in most other countries, pets are regarded as property. This means pets cannot be named as beneficiaries in your will. But it does not mean you cannot make provision for your pet in your will.
The easiest way in which you can provide for your pet is an informal arrangement with a close family member or friend that you trust and who can take care of your pet. The person should obviously agree to this. It would be wise to let other family members know about this arrangement too. While this can work well in many situations, there are some pitfalls to consider. People’s situations change and the person may not be in a situation to carry out your wish by the time you pass away. Or an heir who is not aware of the arrangement may challenge it and insist on taking your pet. It is, therefore, better to have a more formalised arrangement.
Bequeathing your pet to a person
Since pets are regarded as property, you can bequeath your pet to a specific person in your will. Again, this should be a person you trust and who has agreed to take care of your beloved pet. You should consider leaving money to the person who would take care of your pet for the duration of its life in your will. If you have more than one pet, you should also decide if all your pets should go to one person, or if they should be given to different individuals. The advantage of leaving your pet to a specific person in your will is that it is formalized, and the executor of the estate must ensure that your pet is given to the named person. In most cases, this would be a good option. However, there is no way in which you can assure that the money given to take care of the pet will be used for that purpose and it cannot be enforced.
Forming a trust to take care of your pet
This option is more complex and costly, and you will most likely have to consult an attorney. However, it is the best way to ensure that your pet is taken care of in the manner that you want it to be cared for. A testamentary trust must be specified in your will. You should nominate a trustee that would be willing and capable to manage the inheritance and you should nominate a guardian to take care of your pet. The guardian and the trustee should ideally be different people to avoid a potential conflict of interest. The ideal trustee would be good with finances and care about pets. The ideal guardian will be someone who loves pets, lives somewhere where your pet will be happy, and has time available to spend with your pet.
If you would like specific instructions and guidance about your pet to be given to the guardian, you can write a letter that accompanies your will, which can be given to the guardian. The letter will not be legally enforceable, but will provide the details that cannot be contained in the will.
Remember to plan for the interim care of your pet before your estate is finalised if you choose to follow this route.
There is the age-old adage that says, "the only constant is change". Proper planning will therefore require regular updates to your will. For example, when a pet dies, or if you get an additional pet, these changes must be made. You should also consider naming an alternative guardian, trustee, or heir for your pet in case the chosen individuals are no longer available to accept the responsibility.
When calculating the amount of money that would be required to take care of your pet, you should consider the following:
- how old your pet might become,
- the normal monthly cost of your pet's food,
- and other needs, such as pet insurance, grooming, annual veterinary costs as well as potentially unexpected veterinary costs, and inflation.
If you do not know anyone who can take care of your pet, you can consider private animal sanctuaries and rescue organisations or the SPCA and name them in your will instead of an individual. However, you must investigate this and discuss it with them to ensure that it would be a viable option.
The best way to protect your pet when you are no longer there to do it, is to plan properly. So, start planning today.
Dr Trudie Prinsloo is a qualified veterinarian and attorney. In 2015, she started Legalvet Services to provide legal advice to the animal health and veterinary industries in South Africa and now she has teamed up with us to tell you more about pet estate planning. This blog is intended for informational purposes only and should in no way be regarded as a substitute for professional legal advice.