Dog’s future in limbo after owner’s death

Don’t forget your pooch when planning your estate. 

Many families regard their pets as full members, but only a small minority reflect this fact in their wills. In one recent case, that testamentary silence helped spur a fight over the future of one-year-old mixed breed puppy Rocco Junior, following the death of his owner, Leonard Carvalho. 

According to a CTV News report, Rocco Junior currently lives with Carvalho’s girlfriend at the time of his passing, Aliesha Verma. However, his sister has launched an application in Ontario Superior Court seeking to have the dog turned over as part of the deceased’s estate, to be distributed along with the rest of his property.  

Verma, for her part, claims that her late boyfriend gifted Rocco Junior to her soon after getting him at six weeks old. 

“It was just shocking to me that this can even happen,” she told the news outlet. “I’m very scared and the thought [of forfeiting him] is unbearable.” 

A hearing in the matter was held in August, and the court’s decision could be precedent setting, since the amount of estate litigation caselaw concerning pets is extremely thin.  

The case highlights some of the challenges that pet owners face when accounting for their furry friends. Although many people treat their animals like their children, Ontario law generally regards pets more like a person’s personal property.  

While Rocco Junior’s custody is being contested by multiple prospective caregivers, testators are perhaps more likely to have the opposite problem. Owners of animals more advanced in age or with health problems may have particular trouble finding a willing guardian for their creatures after they are gone, which is why people often provide for funds to go with their pets to cover future living and medical expenses. 

If you’re thinking of including your pet in your own will, I would recommend that you speak not only to the planned caregiver, but also to whoever will be administering the estate, to make sure they’re on board.  

Technically speaking, instructions for the care of pets are typically “precatory,” which means they express a testator’s wishes and crucially, are not binding on the estate’s executors or trustees.  

And if the deceased’s wishes can’t be met, then the executor themselves may need to take over responsibility or possibly have the animal euthanized if nobody can be found to care for it. 

Cash may also need to be set aside for the interim stage between the testator’s passing and the executor’s appointment as trustee – a period that can last for months if probate is required, and during which the executor will have no way to access funds from the estate.  

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