What Happens to My Dog When I Die?

Texans Love Their Dogs

The Texas Supreme Court got it right when they said, “Texans love their dogs.” Strickland v. Medien, 397 S.W. 3d 184 (Tex. 2013).

Canine companions are treated and treasured not as mere personal property, but as beloved friends, confidants, even family members. Id. However, when it comes to finding your dogs a new owner when you pass away, the court will treat them as personal property.

In 1891, the Texas Supreme Court in the case of Heiligmann v. Rose, 16 S.W. 931 (1891) declined to adopt a “true rule” that dogs are personal property. The issue in the case was about placing a value on an owner’s five Newfoundland dogs that were poisoned. The court found the dogs had no market value but did have economic value derived from their usefulness and services.

Dogs Are Not People

In 2013, the Texas Supreme Court in Strickland, cited its 122-year precedent on the legal valuation of companion animals and refused to allow emotion-based damages for the loss of a pet. To hold otherwise would have allowed pet owners to claim the same damages for the loss of companionship with their pet as a husband could claim for the loss of his wife or a parent would claim for the loss of their child. It would have also allowed recovery for the loss of companionship with pets to be eligible for damages that were not allowed in some human relationships, such as loss of companionship between step parent and step child, siblings, or grandchild and grandparent.

How To Care For Your Dog When You Pass Away

As it stands today in Texas, when the owner passes away their pet is treated essentially the same as a table or lamp . However, that does not mean you don’t have an opportunity to specifically provide for your pets under your will. You do have these options.

Leave Money to the Caretaker

One option is to leave your pet to a person named in your will. You can also leave money to the named person, but there is no guarantee the money will be used for your pet. And, the money could be lost to the new owner’s creditors or divorce.

Create a Pet Trust

Another option is to create a pet trust. You can create a trust in your will, which does not need to be funded until after your death. Your will can name a person who will manage the money in the trust and care for your pet. With a pet trust, you can exercise more control over how the money is to be spent on the pet and protect the money in the trust from misuse. For example, you can specify that the proceeds from the pet trust should be used for routine veterinary visits, grooming costs, and feeding.

Texas Property Code §112.037 addresses trusts set up for the care of an animal. You should be aware that leaving too much money in your pet trust could affect how the money is used. The Texas statute authorizes the use of the pet trust funds for non-pet care if the trust property exceeds the amount required to care for the pet. In such cases, the excess property will be distributed to the beneficiaries under your will or your next of kin.

When creating a pet trust, your will should clearly identify your pets and should be updated as your pet ownership status changes. Otherwise, your pet trust may not be upheld by the court.

Is That My Cat?

There is an interesting case involving a lady who took steps to ensure her cats were taken care of after she passed away. She wrote her will out of by hand in 1999, stating she wanted her money to be used to take care of her 10 cats. Ensuring her cats were cared for was so important to her that she emphasized in her will that the care of her cats takes all priority.

Unfortunately, when her will was probated 5 years later, the court ruled that the trust for her cats failed because none of the cats could be identified. One witness testified that there was one cat seen in the area and it looked like the owner’s cat, but no one could identify it as one of the cats referred to in the will. Hahn v. Stange, No. 04-07-00253-CV (Tex. App. San Antonio Feb. 13, 2008). This case is a good example of why it is important to keep your will updated and use clear language.

Let Someone Else Decide

There is a third option available for you to care for your pets after you pass away. You could name an executor in your will and allow him or her to decide who should inherit your pets. When your will includes a general bequest to multiple people, such as leaving all your furniture to your children, the executor will be responsible for deciding which specific items will go to each child. Those items could include your pets. If you do not have a will, then the state of Texas will appoint an administrator to distribute your property, including your beloved pets, to the person or persons listed in the statute.

Contact Us

If you have pets and want to ensure they are taken care of after you pass away, you may benefit from the advice of an experienced estate planning attorney. The Law Office of Hugh Spires, Jr. can help you evaluate your options and prepare the documents you need to carry out your wishes.