Want to Leave Your Estate to Fido? Now You Can!

SEPTEMBER 2, 1996 VOLUME 4, NUMBER 9

Modern life sometimes seems to be hectic, impersonal and detached. The elderly, particularly, often find themselves isolated by chronic health problems or other limitations, distant relatives and a shrinking circle of friends. Small wonder that pets often become central to the lives of their elderly .

Many pet owners are deeply concerned about the care their closest companions will receive if they survive their elderly owners. The idea of leaving some portion of an estate for the purpose of caring for the surviving pet or pets is not new, but seems to have taken on increased urgency in recent years.

Although it has always been legally possible to leave money for the benefit of pets, recent changes in Arizona law (mirrored by developments in other states) have made it easier to do so. Since changes by the Arizona legislature in 1995, it has been legally permissible to simply create a trust for the benefit of a pet.

Trusts for pets are not an entirely new phenomenon. Stories of substantial estates being left “to” cats or dogs have been told for decades. In one notable Tucson case from the middle of this century, a local attorney was charged with personally benefiting from his role as manager of an estate left to a much loved dog. In his defense he argued, for example, that the dog enjoyed and could afford riding in a luxury car. That and similar stories point out the most serious limitation of pre-existing law–since the pets are not (usually, anyway) in a position to monitor the behavior of their caretakers or report abuses, trusts for pets were often a ripe opportunity for the greedy or unscrupulous.

The new law attempts to reduce the risk of such abuses. It specifically permits trusts for pets to be recognized and managed (where necessary) by the courts, and permits court proceedings to be brought by “any person.” It also creates a set of strong presumptions about the intentions of the person leaving money to the pet, and prohibits the trustee/manager of the funds from personally benefiting (except by payment of reasonable fees for services actually rendered).

The law permits trusts only for the benefit of “domestic or pet” animals. That almost seems like a challenge: can you create a bequest to an exotic animal companion who falls into neither category?

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