What can you do if you are left a pet in a will? - Veterinary Practice
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InFocus

What can you do if you are left a pet in a will?

SOPHIE ENDERSBY
follows up her previous article on
pets and wills with a discussion of
how practices and individual
veterinary surgeons can handle
such bequests

MY previous article, in the October edition of Veterinary Practice, discussed the options available to pet owners when thinking how to include their pets in their wills. Whilst this was written from the perspective of a pet owner, the question has arisen as to what vets should do, in their professional capacity, if they are left a pet by one of their clients. As with many things of a legal nature, the answer depends on a number of factors. If a client has merely given a verbal request to a local veterinary practice to look after a pet once they are no longer alive, there is no binding obligation. If the practice or indeed the individual vet wishes to take the animal and house it, then they can do so, but they do so freely and without being able to request any financial recompense. If they decide not to take the animal, then the pet is left to the executors or the personal representatives of the deceased client for them to deal with. It should be pointed out that if a pet is left by its owner to the executors of the will to deal with, and the executors request a practice to take care of the animal, the executors then become a client of the practice and would be contractually obliged to settle the practice’s fees. Whether these fees are reasonable from the deceased owner’s estate point of view is the responsibility of the executor. If the vet is asked to put a pet down on an owner’s demise, then whether or not to take this action will depend on how the will is worded. If there is no specific gift to the vet or the practice, it will be the executor’s or personal representative’s responsibility to give those instructions and he or he will then become a client of the vet. If there is a specific gift of the pet in a will to a vet with a request to put the animal down (and it can only ever be a request as the vet then becomes the owner), the decision is up to the vet as he or she then owns the animal. Under the Animal Welfare Act 2006, all that is required is that the destruction of the animal must be in an appropriate and humane way.

Incentive

Some pet owners may specify in their will a named individual to take the animal, which could be coupled with a cash gift, firstly as an incentive to take the pet and also to use the money for the pet’s keep. The recipient can refuse the animal but if he or she chooses to accept it (and the cash), that person has to also accept the risk that the funds may not be sufficient to house, feed and look after the pet for the rest of its days. If a pet owner has named a veterinary practice in his or her will, then the practice is able to take the pet and the legacy even if the legacy exceeds the lifetime of the animal. Any surplus funds would belong to the practice. Similarly, if the pet is left to the individual vet, any surplus cash would belong to that vet. Another query which was raised was whether vets could provide a service to look after pets until they can be re-homed, perhaps using a legacy? In theory they could do this, but there are some issues to consider. They will have to take on the risk that the legacy may either be insufficient, and so they will need to eventually fund it, or too much, but could perhaps fund those pets that were not left with sufficient money. It is, of course, impossible to know how long the pet will live or what treatment it will require and so it will depend on whether the veterinary practice feels such a service is commercially viable. The practice would have to ensure that clients named the correct “recipient” for a pet in their will – i.e. they may set the service up under their usual trading name of the practice, or a separate commercial vehicle. In addition, practices may change their legal status and may convert from a sole practitioner to a partnership or to an LLP. The practice must be able to give clear advice to its clients to avoid any problems later on. There is also the practical issue of space to consider. For example, the practice will have to think about what it will do if it ends up with too many pets. It should be made clear to the pet owner that the pet may need to be put down if the animal can not be re homed. If you have any questions or need further information regarding any of these issues, please contact the author at sophie.endersby@bpe.co.uk.

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