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10 May 2018

Can pets inherit property?

People have enjoyed the companionship of animals for thousands of years, but can we protect their futures by leaving them property in our wills?

Around two thirds of Australian homes have a pet of some sort. Not only do dogs and cats protect our homes from unwelcome visitors, they provide fun, friendship and give our lives additional meaning. In many of our households, pets are treated like members of the family, be they dogs, cats, fish, birds or more exotic and unusual animals such as monkeys, turtles - even snakes. So how can you ensure the future welfare of your furry, feathered or scaly family member after you’ve passed away?

When the notorious "Queen of Mean" Leona Helmsley died in 2008, one provision of her will allocated $12 million for the care of her dog, a Maltese Terrier named Trouble. In Germany, when the Countess Karlotta Libenstein passed away in 1991, she left her entire $80 million fortune to her pet, a German shepherd named Gunther III. Trustees of the estate have done well with investments since then turning Gunther’s inheritance into roughly $375 million, which now belongs to the next in line, Gunther IV.

Can you provide such an inheritance for your pet in Australia? Well, the answer is very clear. Australian pets are considered property by law. This means that while you can own your cat or dog, they can’t legally own you, (even though they might act as if they do) and they can’t actually own anything, including property, themselves.

One answer to this dilemma is to provide a legacy in your will that leaves your pet to someone else, together with a non-binding request that they look after your pet. Another solution is to set up a trust with the specific responsibility to look after Buddy, Tigger, Lucky or Kitty after you have passed away, but such trusts can only work in the best interests of your pet if the trustees are willing to carry out their obligations.

Whether you decide on a trust or a legacy to look after the welfare of your pet, make sure that the person you select to carry out this responsibility is willing and able to take care of them and that they will have the best interests of your pet in mind.

Image attribution: By Mike weir - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5038316