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Estate planning: Is your dog or cat in the family will?

Jack and Megan Bernard of Vancouver have earmarked $10,000 to care for their dog, Willis, should they predecease him.

Ben Nelms/The Globe and Mail

It was after having their second child last year that Vancouver couple Jack and Megan Bernard decided it was finally time to draw up a will. They wanted a legal document that not only specified who would take care of their kids if they passed away, but also their four-legged family member, Willis.

Willis is the couple's five-year-old dog, a rescue animal from India they've had since he was a puppy. Their will states the dog, and the kids, now 3 and six months, will go to Ms. Bernard's parents, along with money to help support them. For the dog, the couple has earmarked $10,000, to cover any potential medical expenses as he gets older.

"Similar to how we would leave money for them to take care of the kids, we are leaving money for the dog. He's family," says Ms. Bernard, 32.

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"My parents are fine, I'm sure they could handle the expenses, but it's nice to leave them something if anything should come up."

The couple doesn't expect to die before the dog, but if they do, "We don't want Willis in a kennel or out on the street again," adds Mr. Bernard, 36.

A growing number of Canadians are including provisions for their pets in their wills, says Barry Seltzer, a lawyer and co-author of Fat Cats & Lucky Dogs: How to Leave (Some of) Your Estate to Your Pet.

"Very often, people are closer to their pets than they are to their other family members or children," says Mr. Seltzer, who has been drawing up wills for pets in his Toronto-area office for decades.

At first, Mr. Seltzer said people thought both he and his clients were odd for including pets in an estate plan. Today, he says the practice is booming, alongside society's attachment to furry friends.

"It's an interesting commentary on where pets stand in terms of people's lives these days," says Janet Sim, a Toronto-based partner in the trust and estates group at law firm Osler Hoskin & Harcourt LLP, who is also seeing a spike in the number of clients putting pets in their wills.

She's had a few cases where a "very substantial amount of money" is given to someone to look after the pet – anywhere from $25,000 to $250,000, the latter for a standard poodle.

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Ms. Sim has also had a number of requests from clients wanting to be buried with their pet's remains. One client has requested his ashes be mixed with those of his already deceased pets, and scattered on his property in Ontario's cottage country.

One of the most controversial and high-profile cases of putting a pet in a will was in 2007, when U.S. billionaire Leona Helmsley left her dog, a white Maltese named Trouble, a $12-million (U.S.) trust fund. Her grandchildren contested the will and, in 2008, a judge reduced the pet's fund to $2-million.

A court in New Brunswick also intervened in the early 1990s, when a local man put a clause in his will requesting that his four horses be put down by the RCMP when he died. The Mounties refused and the court struck down the direction in the will on the basis that it was against public policy.

Ms. Sim said she's had similar requests from clients wanting to have their pets euthanized after they die, believing nobody else can properly care for them. She cites the New Brunswick case, and warns that a client's wishes may not always be met.

Most requests are straightforward, including an instruction for who gets the pet and some money to cover costs, Mr. Seltzer says. In his practice, most clients leave about $10,000 (Canadian) to $15,000 in their will for people taking their pet.

Mr. Seltzer recommends leaving a set sum, instead of making the monetary value opened ended, where there is the risk of money being drawn long after the pet passes away.

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While many people may have informal agreements about who gets their pet when they die, Mr. Seltzer believes having it in the legal document could prevent any potential costly disputes, similar to other assets.

"You get to decide what you'd like to happen and you make it known to the people involved what your wishes are," Mr. Seltzer says. "Assuming someone is going to step in and take over is a bad plan. It doesn't always happen."

Stacey Sambury says her fiancé, Gianis Liotos, is encouraging her to update her will so that he gets her two-year-old chihuahua, Raisin, should she pass away.

It's the same dog he tried to talk her out of getting two years ago.

"Now he loves her so much," says Ms. Sambury, 42, of Toronto.

"I just assumed Raisin might go to my parents if anything happened to me," she adds. "I never really thought about it before, but I guess there might have been a dispute [over the dog]."

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About the Author
Contributor

Brenda Bouw is a freelance writer and editor based in Vancouver. She has more than 20 years of experience as a business reporter, including at The Globe and Mail, The Canadian Press, the Financial Post and was executive producer at BNN (formerly ROBTv). Brenda was also part of the Globe and Mail reporting team that won the 2010 National Newspaper Award for business journalism. More

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