As a single woman with no children, I had never really given much thought to estate planning. I am close to my brother and sister and I just assumed they would amicably and fairly divide things up upon my departure to the great beyond.
However, my lackadaisical approach to end-of-life planning came to an abrupt end several years ago when my flight from Las Vegas to Toronto was overcome with the worst turbulence I have ever experienced. Pre-COVID-19, I was flying at least once or twice a month and have had my share of bad flights—but this was on a whole new level. The man sitting in the middle of my row actually grabbed the cross from a necklace he was wearing, clenched it in his fist, and rocked back and forth reciting the Lord’s Prayer as the plane shook!
What will happen to my pets if I die?
While this flight wasn’t good for my stomach, it was amazingly effective at encouraging me to ponder the meaning of life and make me wonder if I was leaving behind any loose ends.
Lo and behold, as I hurtled to what I thought would be my death, it was not my sister, brother or even long-lost lovers I thought of, but rather my cats—all three of them. Who would take care of them if I died? Would they end up at the Humane Society, like most pets, if no one offers to adopt them? Would they be adopted together or be separated? Who would inform their new owner about their special hypoallergenic diets and favourite brand of catnip? The future of my cats was uncertain and it was all my fault because I didn’t have a will. I love my cats, what can I say?
I come from a long line of animal lovers. In fact, my sister is a veterinarian and has long stressed the importance of taking full responsibility for a pet. Clearly, I had let her (and the cats) down! And I’m not alone in this: According to the Wall Street Journal, only 9% of cat and dog owners have made financial provisions for their pets in their wills.
Planning for the worst-case scenario
Needless to say, the flight did not crash, and as we came in for a landing, I vowed to make a legal will so that I would never have to experience these terrible feelings of guilt and uncertainty again. As soon as I got home, I sat down and planned out how I wanted to divide my estate between my sister and my brother and who I wanted to care for my cats. My siblings were out as potential feline adopters because my sister has a cat-unfriendly canine and my brother has allergies.
So, I had a heart-to-heart talk with my neighbour, who is not only a friend and a fellow cat lover but also my cat sitter. I asked her if she would be willing to take in my three cats in the event of my untimely demise. I told her that I would also give her a lump sum of money ($50,000) to care for the cats and to offset any potential big vet bills—I did not want cat care to be a burden. (Side note: I definitely don’t have $50,000 lying around but I do own my home and I know that my sister, who I deemed my executor, can sell the house to pay my neighbour and still have plenty left to divide between her and my brother).
Setting up a legal will
The next step, of course, was making a will. I wanted to be absolutely sure that my will would be legally enforceable, but I didn’t want to break the bank. I did a lot of research and found that Canadians are fortunate to have access to some very affordable online options for estate planning. Online legal will companies like Willful allow users to make a complete, legally enforceable end-of-life plan that even includes a power of attorney and a living will (and pet care too).
I am fortunate because my sister’s husband is a lawyer and he offered to draw me up a traditional will for free (though it’s possible his enthusiasm to draft my will was in part to ensure I didn’t stick his wife with three cats!).
Setting up a specific bequest vs. a trust
Generally speaking, there are two ways to handle pets in a will. Firstly, you can pass on your pet as a “specific bequest,” which means you leave someone your pet much in the way you would leave a beloved item like an art collection. (In Canada pets are still considered possessions so you can’t directly leave the pet money or a house to live in.) Alternatively, you can set up a trust. In this option, you would select a trusted pet guardian who agrees to essentially adopt your pets on your death. Then you pick a specified trustee to hold funds for the care of your pet and hand out the money to the pet guardian at select intervals. When selecting a trustee, you have to make sure you get the person’s permission and confirmation that they are willing to be a trustee for your pets since this could be a long-term commitment lasting many years.
Going with the trust option can get complicated, however, because there is no guarantee the person you pick as trustee will honour the arrangement. Often a lawyer will suggest that you appoint a ‘protector’ to supervise the trustee. Furthermore, if the trustee gets incapacitated or sick you would need to have a plan in place in your will for someone to take over for them.
How I made sure my pets would be taken care of
In my case, I have a great deal of faith and trust in my pet guardian so I didn’t feel I needed a trustee to oversee handing out the funds to them. And, while I didn’t include it in my will, it’s worth noting that I confirmed with my pet guardian that she would also temporarily take care of my pets if I was ever incapacitated or ill. You can also include a stipulation like this in your will.
In the end, it took less than an hour and—voila! I had a legal will. Believe me when I say that I actually felt lighter when I left my lawyer’s office. I’m such a convert to the importance of estate planning that I have already convinced two neighbours to get wills as well.
Getting a will is as much about doing something good for yourself as it is about doing good for those you’ll leave behind. Knowing that things will be taken care of for everyone I love—be they human or animal—when I die gave me an incomparable peace of mind. And, remember that while lawyers generally suggest that you only need to update your will after a major life or financial event, you can ask your lawyer to add in your pets at any time. Such an amendment will be much less costly than setting up a whole new will. However, the benefit to using an online legal will like Willful is that you can make as many changes as you like—absolutely free!
If you don’t already have a will, concern for your pets is a great excuse to finally get moving. So, meet with that lawyer or get started on your will online to make sure that fluffy or fido spends the rest of their days in comfort, regardless of what happens. If you’re interested in making an online legal will, all you need is a computer to get started. It’s that easy. And once you’ve got your will covered, make sure you have pet insurance!