Can I Really Leave My House to My Cats?

catIn an early episode of the long-running family sitcom “The Simpsons,” Homer and Marge are looking to buy their first home. They come across a house they like, except for the fact it is filled with cats. When Homer suggests removing the animals, a cheerful real estate agent explains, “Actually, according to the Will, the cats own the house. You’d be their tenants.”

This joke reinforces something of an estate planning urban myth–the idea that people can leave property to their pets they way they would a child. As much as we treat our cats, dogs, birds, and other pets like family, from a legal standpoint they are simply property. This means you cannot name a pet as a beneficiary of your will or trust.

Creating a Wisconsin Pet Trust to Care for Your Animals

However, you can create a trust for the benefit of your pet. Wisconsin law expressly allows the creation of such “pet trusts.” More precisely, the law permits you to place money or property in trust to provide for the care of your animals after you are gone.

You do not necessarily need to execute a separate trust instrument. You can include language to establish a pet trust in your will. As with any trust, you must have the legal capacity to make a trust, and you need to make it clear that your intention is to create a legally binding trust.

Obviously, you need to name a trustee. This is the person who will actually assume ownership of the trust assets and ensure your instructions are carried out. The trustee may also be the person you wish to actually care for your animal, but you may separate the roles of trustee and caregiver if you think that is best. The trust may include additional instructions for your pet’s care, such as what type of food they require, how frequently to get a veterinary checkup, and so forth.

Although Wisconsin law gives you broad discretion in fashioning a pet trust, there are some restrictions you need to be aware of:

  • A pet trust is only enforceable for animals who are alive during your lifetime. In other words, you cannot create a “perpetual” trust for the benefit of any babies born to your pets after you die.
  • The pet trust must terminate when the last animal alive during your lifetime passes away.
  • If you fail to name a trustee, or the person you name is unavailable and you failed to nominate an alternate, a Wisconsin judge has the authority to name a trustee for you.
  • If the amount of property you leave to fund the trust is deemed excessive, the court can distribute any funds “not required” for your pet’s care be directed to your legal (human) heirs or beneficiaries.

Get Help from a Madison Estate Planning Attorney

The estate lawyers of Krause Donovan Estate Law Partners, LLC practice law in the areas of Probate, Wills, Estate Planning, and Trusts. We assist clients in and around Madison, Wisconsin with all matters related to estate planning, trusts, and probate matters. Our dedicated attorneys will even make house calls if you are unable to come to our office.

To attend a free estate planning workshop or to receive our client planner to assess your estate planning mindset, contact our office by calling (608) 268-5751 or use our online contact form.