14 March 2024

Pets in the event of death

  • Articles
  • Legal
  • Inheritance / Succession

The loss of a loved one is associated with many emotions and challenges. In addition to coping emotionally with the personal loss, practical issues must also be clarified, possibly also in relation to pets. In Switzerland, there is a legal framework that regulates succession of animals in the event of death. From the question of ownership to the stipulations in a will, we take a look at the most important aspects and possible regulations.


1. Ownership of the Pet in the Event of Death 

Since the amendment to the Swiss Civil Code, animals are no longer considered mere objects (Art. 641a para. 1 CC). However, they are still subject to the regulations applicable to "objects", unless there are special provisions for animals in the law. Pets owned by a deceased person are therefore part of the deceased's estate, just like other material assets. An pet is inherited like any other asset. If a deceased person leaves multiple heirs, they form an inheritance community until the estate is distributed. All rights and obligations, including the right to dispose of the pet, initially belong jointly to the members of the inheritance community until the division of the estate is completed.

2. Provision in the Will: Obligation to care for Pets 

To ensure that a beloved pet is well cared for even after the owner's death, the testator can, in their will, specify both the allocation of the pet to a particular heir or a legatee who doesn't have to be an heir, as well as specific provisions for the pet's welfare. In the absence of a testamentary provision, there may be a risk that less animal-friendly heirs may dispose of the "thing" for example, by euthanizing the pet. Such an act, though unpleasant, is generally not punishable by law.

The allocation of the pet is binding unless all heirs unanimously decide on a different arrangement for the pet. Associated provisions oblige a particular heir or a specific person, who doesn't have to be an heir, to care for the pet. The provision to care for the pet can be enforced by anyone with a vested interest, including animal welfare organizations.

3. Allocation of the Pet if nothing is stipulated in the Will

In many cases, a will—if one exists at all (which is only the case for about one-third of all deaths)—does not explicitly determine what should happen to the pets in the event of death. In such situations, legal regulations come into play, and fundamentally, all heirs have the same entitlement to the allocation of the pet. If multiple heirs request the allocation, the law stipulates that the pet should be allocated to the heir who can ensure the best care for the pet from an animal welfare standpoint (Article 651a Paragraph 1 of the Swiss Civil Code). However, this provision applies only to pets in the narrower sense and not to animals kept for commercial purposes. This category includes animals on a farm or very valuable sport horses, for example.

If no heir is willing to take on the pet, it must be sold or given away as part of the estate division. Any proceeds from a potential sale become part of the estate. Even if the pet is unwelcome to the heirs, they must adhere to the provisions of animal welfare laws: Neglecting an animal is among the actions punishable by law.

4. The Pet as Heir or Legatee?

We are often asked whether a pet itself can be a recipient of a bequest or even an heir in a will. Many people, for example, are aware that the famous fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld designated his cat as a beneficiary of his estate. However, due to its lack of legal capacity, a pet cannot be designated as an heir under Swiss law and cannot accept gifts. Nevertheless, the law does not entirely invalidate such provisions. Instead, it provides a remedy by suggesting that the corresponding provision should be construed as an obligation to the heirs to use the allocated funds intended for the pet to ensure its welfare (Article 482 Paragraph 4 of the Swiss Civil Code). f no specific heir (or legatee) is burdened with such an obligation in the will, then all heirs are obligated to ensure the welfare of the pet until the estate is divided. During the division of the estate, it must be decided whether an heir will take the pet or if it must be placed with a suitable third party. The costs for upkeep, care, and food must then be covered by the funds allocated for that purpose from the estate.

Therefore, it is wise to consider early on what should happen to your pet in the event of your death. Through testamentary provisions and pet-specific obligations, pet owners can ensure that their beloved animals are well cared for even after their passing.

Would you like further information on how to address the needs of your pet in the event of your death? The MME team of experienced inheritance attorneys is here to assist you and welcomes your inquiry.