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A $75,000 ‘inheritance’ for your four-legged child might not be out of line

When Vancouver resident Jane Mundy first saw the photo of rescue puppies from Alberta, she knew right away that one in particular was for her. The moment the Karelian Bear dog arrived at her place, it bounded out of the van and ran right up to her. The two formed an instant bond.

The dog, now 10 years old, has turned out to be an affectionate, street-savvy darling. Ms. Mundy loves her so much that she has accounted for her in her will.

“If I got hit by a bus tomorrow, I figure you’d have to pay someone about 35 dollars a day to look after your dog,” Ms. Mundy says. “After five years, that works out to almost $64,000. So my friend, who’s the executor, gets $75,000 to look after Lizzie.

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“I want to make sure that she goes somewhere where she knows she’s loved,” she added.

Ms. Mundy is not unique in providing for her pet should she die first. What may be surprising, however, is how far some people – especially those with plenty of cash – will go for their four-legged children.

Vancouver resident Jane Mundy with her Karelian Bear dog, Lizzie.

When German Countess Karlotta Liebenstein died in 1991, she left her US$80-million fortune to her beloved dog. Trustees of the estate were experienced investors, and over the years they grew that sum to nearly US$400-million, which now belongs to the dog’s offspring, Gunther IV. The pooch owns multiple properties around the world, including a Miami Beach mansion that used to belong to Madonna.

Oprah Winfrey’s five dogs have a $30-million trust fund to fall back on when she dies, while a woman in Italy left her $13-million fortune in 2011 to a stray cat she had adopted and named Tommaso.

Estate planners have seen a decided shift in how people account for the welfare of their pets, says Janet Sim, lead of the trust and estate group at Toronto’s Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP.

“Whereas in the early years of my practice people seldom even considered pets when planning their wills, pets figure much more prominently now in people’s lives and therefore in their wills,” Ms. Sim says. “I will now often include a custody provision for pets in a will similar to the one provided for the custody of children under 18.”

She reckons the largest legacy she has seen dedicated to a pet’s care has been the sum of $250,000 to a client’s sister to look after a beloved standard poodle. “And this was an outright gift to the sister, not a trust and no strings attached. So a lot of trust was involved, that the sister would actually use the money to care for the dog.”

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David Altro, a Montreal lawyer and managing partner at Altro LLP, recalls a client in eastern Canada who directed him to prepare a pet trust worth “hundreds of thousands” of dollars for the care of his horses. Mr. Altro calculated what it costs to feed and house the dozen animals each year based on the likely lifetime of the youngest steed.

“Most people hope to give their pet to somebody if they pass away,” Mr. Altro says. “But when you have elderly people who don’t have anybody to leave them to, and they love those animals a lot, it’s a concern. And if you give it to somebody, who’s paying for the upkeep?”

A pet cannot be named as a beneficiary in a will, Mr. Altro notes, because an animal is considered to be property. Rather, the recommended legal structure is a testamentary trust, with a human being designated as trustee to care for the pet.

Some people leave detailed instructions in such a trust that specify what kind of care is needed and how it will be paid for. Mr. Altro also recommends naming a replacement trustee in case the first one can no longer carry out his or her duties. The trust must also include instructions for disposition of any remaining money should the pet die. (Some people opt to give it to a charity.)

Trusts are typically set up when someone is leaving more than $50,000 to a pet, since trust funds must file income taxes each year, says North Vancouver lawyer Mike Beishuizen, of Westcoast Wills & Estates Law Corp.

The largest sum Mr. Beishuizen has prepared for a client in a pet-care trust to date was $150,000.

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“It never surprises me,” Mr. Beishuizen says. “It’s more common in people without children.

"When you die, you want to leave money for the ones you love, so it makes all the sense in the world. It’s typical for these people to give large amounts in the trust fund, to overgive, then, at the end of the life of a pet, to have the money go somewhere else.”

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