By Kathy Antoniotti
Beacon Journal staff writer
It might be a good idea to pay more attention to Mom and Dad’s beloved pooch or finicky feline.
A growing trend in probate law has pet owners setting aside some — if not all — of their estates for the care of their beloved pets.
Akron attorney NiCole Swearingen-Hilker of Akron’s Brouse McDowell law firm, whose specialty is estate planning and administration, said she has seen an uptick in interest in the care of animals after an owner dies.
“The state bar association actually just put together an animal law section,” she said.
One area of concern is estate planning, but Swearingen-Hilker said a driving point in the discussion right now has been the fallout from an incident in October, when the owner of an exotic animal farm opened the cages, allowing the animals to escape, before killing himself.
“They’re looking from a legislative standpoint, not just the point of estate planning, but also with updating some of Ohio’s kind of laws on vicious dogs designation and keeping exotic animals,” she said. “So it’s definitely a happening area at the state bar association level right now.”
The issue of estate planning made international headlines last year when a woman in Italy left her $13 million estate to a cat – making the one-time stray one of the wealthiest animals in the world.
Maria Assunta found that it was not an easy task to leave an estate to an animal. Italian law, like U.S. law, considers animals property and they cannot rightfully inherit an estate.
With no heirs, Assunta, who died at the age of 94, tried to leave her estate to an animal shelter to care for her black feline, Tommaso, a 4-year-old stray she rescued from the streets of Rome. But she was unable to find a shelter to her liking.
Instead she made provisions to leave all her money to her nurse, with the expectation the woman would care for Tommaso until his death.
But even that expectation can be misguided, estate planners say.
A pet trust is a legally sanctioned arrangement providing for the care and maintenance of companion animals in the event of the owner’s disability or death, said California attorney David T. Pisarra.
Pisarra predicted the number of such trusts will grow every year.
“As we see people having fewer children, we are seeing, societally, that they see animals more and more as their families,” he said.
The growing number of questions on the topic has prompted Pisarra to help pen a book: What About Wally? Co-Parenting a Pet With Your Ex. A second book, What About Wally? Estate Planning for Your Best Friend, is to be released this summer.
A pet’s future
Akron attorney Ronald Martin, who has helped clients set up provisions in their wills for their pets, said pet owners in Ohio can handle the future care of their pets in two ways.
“You could leave it [the animal] to a person who will take care of the animal. Basically, you need to find someone who agrees. Then you set aside a sum of money and hope they do it,” Martin said.
The other option is to set up a trust that is enforced by a court-appointed trustee, he said. If the caregiver fails to take care of the pet, a new caregiver can be found.
“Some of these people, their friends are gone. As they get older, their dogs and cats become their best friends,” Martin said.
Willie and Mozella Watts of West Akron worked with Miller to set up a trust for their pets.
“Being a pet lover, I’ve seen so many pets left in distress after their owners die. I consider them part of our family and just like we take care of our human families, we need to make considerations for our pets,” Mozella Watts said. “They will be lonely without us, anyway. I don’t want them to be neglected.
“If you don’t provide for your animals, I think that, in itself, is animal neglect.”
In the Akron area, animal shelters are grappling with related issues as they get requests for help from people looking for good homes for their elderly parents’ pets.
“It’s heartbreaking,” said Jen D’Aurelio, executive director of Paws and Prayers Pet Rescue. “We frequently get calls from the children of aging parents who want to surrender their parent’s pets when they are sent to nursing homes.
“Frequently, particularly older animals that belong to older people, require a great deal of medical and dental care when we get them. It’s a terrible drain on the finances of any rescue to take them.”
Retirees search for pets
Another issue concerning shelters is retirees who come in looking for a new pet.
“We always ask if they have a plan in place in the event they can no longer take care of it. A lot of people adopt a dog when they retire and end up with a 6- or 7-year-old animal they can’t take with them to a nursing home,” she said.
Karen Hackenberry, executive director of Pawsibilities Humane Society of Greater Akron, said the agency does not have a plan to help people looking for long-term help after a pet’s owner dies.
“We’re just studying this as an issue with an eye forward to developing a policy,” Hackenberry said. “The idea of a trust for animal care is interesting. The matter will be brought up before the board.”
There was a time when courts were confused and unsure how to handle it when people left property to their animals.
The Uniform Trust Code, adopted by the federal government in 2000 and in Ohio six years later, changed everything, said Joyce Tischler, the California founder of the national Animal Legal Defense Fund. The code adopted set rules that could be uniform across the country.
“We were looking at the code and went to them and said, ‘Look, people are trying to make provisions for their animals and the court said they can’t do it.’ So we developed language for the provision of animals,” Tischler said.
The rules allowed for the creation of trusts to care for the animals. That way, the money can be set aside in the estate for the care of the pets.
Tischler said anyone weighing such a move should consider a few things:
First, she said, pet owners should find someone they trust to carry out their wishes.
In the case of someone who has other potential heirs, Tischler suggests leaving a reasonable amount of money to care for the animal until it dies, but not so much that relatives will balk at the loss of inheritance and sue over the provisions.
It’s not uncommon for people to bequeath money to a shelter, a veterinarian or their attorney for the care of their animal.
“A lot of the time, what people will do to provide in their will is to say, ‘I will give my dog, Trixie, and $10,000 to my friend with the provision that he take care of Trixie.’
“This is an outright bequest of the dog and the money to Joe Smith. Hopefully, Joe Smith is a man of integrity and is going to use that $10,000 on Trixie’s care.”
But again, Tischler said, picking the right person to care for the pet is key. She said one pet owner in Chicago left the estate to an attorney to care for a dog.
“The attorney went out and bought a very expensive Cadillac,” she said. “Occasionally, he would take the dog for a ride in the car.
“The attorney was ultimately brought before the state bar association.”
Kathy Antoniotti can be reached at 330-996-3565 or firstname.lastname@example.org.