It might be a good idea to pay more attention to Mom and Dad's beloved pooch or finicky feline.
A growing trend in probate law has pet owners setting aside some -- if not all -- of their estates for the care of their beloved pets.
Attorney NiCole Swearingen-Hilker of Akron, Ohio's Brouse McDowell law firm, whose specialty is estate planning and administration, said she has seen an uptick in interest in the care of animals after an owner dies.
"The state bar association actually just put together an animal law section," she said.
The issue of estate planning made international headlines last year when a woman in Italy left her $13 million estate to a cat -- making the one-time stray one of the wealthiest animals in the world.
Maria Assunta found that it was not an easy task to leave an estate to an animal. Italian law, like U.S. law, considers animals property and they cannot rightfully inherit an estate.
With no heirs, Assunta, who died at the age of 94, tried to leave her estate to an animal shelter to care for her black feline, Tommaso, a 4-year-old stray she rescued from the streets of Rome. But she was unable to find a shelter to her liking.
Instead she made provisions to leave all her money to her nurse, with the expectation the woman would care for Tommaso until his death.
But even that expectation can be misguided, estate planners say.
A pet trust is a legally sanctioned arrangement providing for the care and maintenance of companion animals in the event of the owner's disability or death, said California attorney David T. Pisarra.
Pisarra predicted the number of such trusts will grow every year.
"As we see people having fewer children, we are seeing, societally, that they see animals more and more as their families," he said.
There was a time when courts were confused and unsure how to handle it when people left property to their animals.
The Uniform Trust Code, adopted by the federal government in 2000, changed everything, said Joyce Tischler, the California founder of the national Animal Legal Defense Fund. The code adopted set rules that could be uniform across the country.
Tischler said anyone weighing such a move should consider a few things:
First, she said, pet owners should find someone they trust to carry out their wishes.
In the case of someone who has other potential heirs, Tischler suggests leaving a reasonable amount of money to care for the animal until it dies, but not so much that relatives will balk at the loss of inheritance and sue over the provisions.
It's not uncommon for people to bequeath money to a shelter, a veterinarian or their attorney for the care of their animal.
"A lot of the time, what people will do to provide in their will is to say, 'I will give my dog, Trixie, and $10,000 to my friend with the provision that he take care of Trixie.'
"This is an outright bequest of the dog and the money to Joe Smith. Hopefully, Joe Smith is a man of integrity and is going to use that $10,000 on Trixie's care."
But again, Tischler said, picking the right person to care for the pet is key. She said one pet owner in Chicago left the estate to an attorney to care for a dog.
"The attorney went out and bought a very expensive Cadillac," she said. "Occasionally, he would take the dog for a ride in the car.
"The attorney was ultimately brought before the state bar association."