Skip to main content

Terry Cooke and Wes Pastuzenko, pet parents to two cats, have put their cats in their will.JESSICA LEE/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Meika and Floyd are inseparable: So it makes perfect sense that ‘Pink Floyd,’ a flame-point Himalayan cat with peachy-pink ears, nose and paws, and sandy-coloured, long-haired Meika with pale blue eyes, remain together should anything happen to their human caretakers.

“The four-footed are part of our family, and we want to make sure they stay together once we’re gone,” says co-parent Terry Cooke, a retired University of Manitoba administrative worker.

To ensure that happens, the two cats are in her and her partner Wes Pastuzenko’s will, with a special provision dictating their beloved felines go to a no-kill shelter.

“They have agreed to take them as a pair until they are adopted together, or stay there together until the end of their lives,” says Ms. Cooke, adding the will also sets aside money to pay for their cats’ care at the shelter.

At one time, Ms. Cooke and her partner’s pet-focused estate plan would have seemed a little eccentric.

But such provisions are now commonplace, particularly among retirees who increasingly consider their furry friends ‘companions’ instead of ‘pets,’ says Toronto lawyer Barry Seltzer.

“Back when I started 40 years ago, if someone came into an office wanting a provision for their pet, most lawyers would have looked at them as if they were a bit crazy,” he says, adding that now, “more people think it’s simply not fair if they don’t put something in the will ensuring their animals are well taken care of.”

Mr. Seltzer co-wrote the book Fat Cats & Lucky Dogs: How to Leave (Some of) Your Estate to Your Pet, released in 2010, to encourage people to do this type of planning for their pets.

“At the time, many law schools were just starting to have animal-focused courses that included topics like animal cruelty laws,” he adds.

Today, pet estate planning considerations are also part of the coursework.

“It’s now to the point that, as a lawyer dealing with estates, you ask every client about whether they want to make a provision in their will for their pets,” he says.

Not every client does, but Mr. Seltzer recommends owners at least have a contingency plan that includes an emergency contact for a trusted friend or family member who has agreed to care for the animals.

Meika and Floyd will not be separated should anything happen to their owners, Terry Cooke and Wes Pastuzenko.JESSICA LEE/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

The ideal scenario is to name a beneficiary of your pets in your will, says Tracey Woo, vice-president of professional practice and tax at RBC Royal Trust.

“What the general public doesn’t understand is that from a common law perspective, pets are property.”

Without a provision in the will, pets are considered residue of the estate, and the executor must decide what happens to them.

To ensure your pet is properly cared for, you need to appoint a beneficiary to receive the pet, or pets, Ms. Woo says.

Best practices include designating one beneficiary and one or two alternates. It’s particularly important for retirees, who may have aging friends named as beneficiaries who could be incapable of caring for the animals when the time comes, Ms. Woo adds.

Another common provision is setting aside money for the beneficiary to pay for the cost of care, Mr. Seltzer says.

“Of course, the question for many is how much is enough?”

Mr. Seltzer says retirees often have older pets requiring more veterinary care and recommends animal owners set aside at least a few thousand dollars for beneficiaries to provide care, if needed.

Of course, you can’t guarantee the money will be spent on the pets, which is why it’s important to choose beneficiaries carefully, he adds. Mr. Seltzer recommends asking them ahead of time if they want to assume the responsibility.

Although an owner could set up a trust for their animal to ensure the money isn’t misspent, Ms. Woo doesn’t recommend it.

“Just from a practical perspective, who is going to enforce the conditions?”

Typically trusts have “human beneficiaries” who will complain if a trustee is mismanaging assets, “but a pet can’t do that obviously,” she explains, adding trusts also involve additional costs and complexities, including filing annual tax returns.

While making a will provision is likely sufficient to ensure wishes are respected, the effort could all be for naught if owners don’t have “an emergency contact who can immediately take custody if you’re incapacitated or dead,” she adds.

Probate can take more than a year, so owners should confirm someone knows to step in and provide care in the interim. In most cases, that caregiver will be the beneficiary, Ms. Woo says.

“Technically, beneficiaries shouldn’t take over care of the pet until the executor has dispersed the assets, pets included, but on a practical level, it really makes sense for them to take over care as soon as possible.”

Whether plans are formalized in a will or simply a verbal agreement with a friend or family member, most pet owners would like to avoid the worst-case scenario of their pet being euthanized, Mr. Seltzer says.

“That’s especially a risk for older pets, who are less likely to be adopted.”

Without a provision in the will, pets are considered residue of the estate, and the executor must decide what happens to them.JESSICA LEE/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Given many retirees have shrinking circles of friends and family capable of taking ownership of their animal, it’s more common for pet owners to do as Ms. Cooke and her partner have done – making no-kill pet rescues the beneficiary.

Krista Krueger, manager of Rescue Siamese, the Winnipeg no-kill shelter named beneficiary of Floyd and Meika, says it always takes back cats it adopts out should owners no longer be able to care for them.

At the same time, it often receives calls from family members of older cat owners who haven’t made any plans.

“It happens several times a year where older people are in hospital, long-term care or have passed away,” she says, noting the shelter has limited space and only accepts cats with Siamese traits.

Their owners’ estate plans aside, Floyd and Meika are guaranteed a spot because Floyd was adopted from the shelter a few years ago, and the shelter does not break up paired animals.

Ms. Cooke says the couple still wanted to make it official in their will while assuring there was money for their care.

“Much like people make plans for young children and partners, I truly feel an animal – dog or cat – is just as much a part of the family, so ensuring they’re cared for when you’re gone is just the right thing to do.”

Interested in more stories about retirement? Sixty Five aims to inspire Canadians to live their best lives, confidently and securely. Read more here and sign up for our weekly Retirement newsletter.