Wills & Estate Planning

Pets & Estate Planning in British Columbia: What You Need to Know

Written on behalf of Cherkowski Marsden LLP

When American real estate mogul Leona Helmsley died in 2007, she famously left an astounding $12 million to her beloved Maltese dog, Trouble. That amount was later reduced to a mere $2 million following a will challenge by Helmsley’s other beneficiaries and two grandchildren who had been excluded from the Will “for reasons known to them”. The money went towards the care and upkeep of Trouble for the remaining three years of his life, including a caretaker, a security detail and other costs.

People generally love their pets dearly, with many considering their pets to be members of the family rather than something they own, like a laptop or a watch. Given that, some may wonder how they can properly provide for their pets in the event that they predecease them. While this once may have seemed like a niche concern, more and more estate lawyers are raising the idea of pet care as an automatic consideration when discussing estate plans with clients. Here, we will take a look at the law in British Columbia with respect to pets, estate planning and how you can ensure that should your pet outlive you, they will be provided and cared for in the manner you wish.

Pets as Property

Despite our love for our pets, in British Columbia, they are indeed considered to be a form of personal property rather than a dependant. As a result, a pet cannot be a direct beneficiary to a Will (nor can they be the subject of custody arrangements in a family matter, such as divorce). However, there are several ways to include a pet in an estate plan in order to ensure their well-being and care for the rest of their lives. Below, we will take a look at a few options.

Bequeathing Your Pet to a Beneficiary

While you can’t leave money directly to your pet, you can leave your pet to someone you trust to provide care and companionship in a way you see fit. Providing the necessities for a pet can be costly, what with veterinary bills, food, and medications, so if choosing to leave your pet(s) in someone’s care, it is also considerate to leave a sum of money that will cover the expenses of your pet’s care for the remainder of its life.

Setting up a Pet Trust

A pet trust is a formal arrangement whereby funds are set aside for the care of the pet(s), with a trustee designated to oversee how and when the funds are spent over the pet’s lifetime. A trustee will ensure that the funds are allocated as necessary to cover the pet’s daily expenses as well as expenditures such as surgery or other medical care. In this case, the trustee may be the person caring for the pet, or they may simply be approving and distributing funds as needed. It may also be pertinent to name an alternate trustee, in the event that the original trustee dies or becomes incapacitated while overseeing the trust.

In British Columbia, trusts that are set up for a purpose that is not charitable are called ‘Non-Charitable Purpose Trusts’, and are limited to a 21-year term. This is important to consider when setting up a trust for a pet that is expected to outlive that term. This would be something to discuss with your estate lawyer, in order to determine the best option for your specific situation.

Given the additional considerations involved in the operation of a trust, including annual tax filings, this option may be most suited to a situation where there are several pets or pets requiring more complex care, such as horses.

Other Potential Options

If you don’t have someone you trust your pet with, consider discussing your situation with your local animal shelter. In some locations, shelters and other animal welfare organizations have begun to develop pet stewardship programs, which allows a pet owner to sign an agreement with the organization authorizing them to find a suitable and loving home for the pet after the owner’s death. Typically the owner will bequeath their pet to the organization in their Will, as well as funds to cover the pet’s care. Then, upon the owner’s death, the organization will find a suitable home for the pet, oversee its care with occasional check-ins and arrange for medical care for the pet as necessary over its lifetime.

Discuss Your Options With an Experienced Estate Lawyer

The estate lawyers at Cherkowski Marsden LLP in Vernon are extremely knowledgeable with respect to all aspects of estate planning and Will drafting. They have extensive experience drafting countless custom estate plans that range from simple to highly complex. For questions and advice about your estate planning needs, please contact their office online or by phone at 250-308-0338.