3 min read

Can You Leave Things to Pets in a Will?


Written by Aurus Sy

Veterinary reviewed by:

Published: 02/18/2022, edited: 02/18/2022

For many of us, our dogs, cats, and other critters are more than just companion animals; they’re cherished members of the family whom we dote on, pamper, and spoil. Naturally, we want to make sure they’re taken care of should we leave this earth before them, and for some pet parents, including their furbabies in their will is not even a question. But the question is, can you legally leave items or money to pets in a will?

Can you leave your assets to a pet?

The Internet is full of wacky stories of wealthy pet parents leaving their estates to their pets. Last year, a Border Collie named Lulu made the news when she inherited $5 million after her human, Tennessee businessman Bill Dorris, passed away. 

Other pets whose parents made sure they were set up for life include Trouble the Maltese, who received $12 million (later reduced to $2 million by a judge) from hotel mogul Leona Helmsley; Tommaso, a former stray cat who was bequeathed with $13 million by property magnate Maria Assunta; and Gigoo, a hen who became the world’s richest chicken after inheriting $15 million from publishing tycoon Miles Blackwell. 

It may be surprising, and perhaps disappointing, to know that in the eyes of the law, pets are considered property. One piece of property cannot own another piece of property, so you can’t directly leave pets an inheritance in your will. However, there are other things you can do to ensure their security and comfort even when you’re no longer around.

Naming a pet guardian

Since pets are property according to the law, they’re included in your estate along with all your other assets. Therefore, you can leave them as a gift to a beneficiary, just like you would any other property. The beneficiary will then become your pet’s official guardian. 

It’s important to be specific when listing pets in your will, especially if there are multiple animals. Make sure to write their names and breeds, as well as the beneficiary’s full legal name. For example, instead of writing “my cat goes to my sister,” the pet clause in your will should look something like: “I leave my brown Domestic Shorthair cat, Mittens, and $2,000 to Libby Carter, with the hope that the money will be used for Mittens’ care and maintenance.” 

Keep in mind that while your furbaby will legally belong to your pet guardian, they’re not legally required to honor your wishes, so choose someone you trust. It’s also a good idea to name an alternate guardian should your first choice be unable to fulfill your requests.

Older woman hugging Beagle in a field - leave things to pets in will

Setting up a pet trust

Though more complicated and more expensive, a pet trust lets you leave money for your pet’s care with a legally binding obligation. It provides more assurance that your furbaby will be taken care of according to your instructions as there are different people involved: the trustee, who manages the money; the caretaker, who actually looks after your pet; and the enforcer, who makes sure that the funds aren’t being misused by the trustee and caretaker. The trustee and caretaker can be the same person. If you don’t name an enforcer, however, a court can appoint one. 

A trust can be very specific when it comes to how your pet should be cared for. For example, you can leave instructions for your caretaker to bring your dog to their favorite dog park every morning, feed your cat a certain brand of food, or take your cockatiel to the vet twice a year. 

A trust document also states what should be done with any money that’s left over when the pet passes away. Pet parents usually allocate the remainder to individuals or to a charity, but if no one is named, it is absorbed back into the estate. When deciding how much money to put into a trust, you’ll want to consider your pet’s life expectancy, expenses, and potential health issues

Additional tips

Whether you’re naming a guardian in your will or setting up a trust, the people you choose to entrust with your pet must be willing and able to take care of your furbaby after you're gone, so talk to them first. It’s also important to update your will every few years or after major life events to include any new pets or pet guardians. 

Got more questions about your pet? Chat with a vet professional today to get the lowdown on all their needs.

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