Claws and effect: VP of Attorneys for Animals specializes in pet trust work


Vice President of Attorneys for Animals Rebecca Wrock earned law degrees from Wayne State University and the University of Alabama.
– Photo courtesy of Rebecca Wrock

By Sheila Pursglove

Legal News

Most people with companion animals recognize them as family members, and so should the law, notes Rebecca Wrock, an attorney with Couzens, Lansky, Fealk, Ellis, Roeder, & Lazar PC in Farmington Hills.

"We plan for our children in our estate plans, but our animals are also dependent upon us," she says. "I believe properly caring for an animal means ensuring the animal has care for the animal's whole life, not just our own, and that involves planning."

The most common mistakes Wrock sees are people assuming an informal arrangement will work; planning only with a will instead of a trust, in which case the animal could be in a shelter or euthanized by the time the probate estate is opened and the judge makes a decision; and failing to plan ahead for changes in circumstances, such as for backup caregivers to serve if the first caregiver can no longer care for the animal-and using the correct documents to allow for ongoing control over that decision.

"Of course the biggest mistake is having no plan in place at all," says Wrock, selected as a Super Lawyers Rising Star in Probate & Estate Planning since 2016. "The most important decision is the caregiver, but there are many important decisions in this process that should be discussed with someone who regularly does this type of work."

According to Wrock, a pet whose human has passed away is more common than people realize and a lot of pets fall through the cracks because of ineffective planning or a failure to plan entirely.

"These pets can end up in shelters, can be passed around from caregiver to caregiver, or can be euthanized," she says. "And that is just from the perspective of an individual animal. On the other end, a failure to plan can add animals to an already overwhelmed shelter system."

Many of her pet trust clients are individuals or couples without children. Wrock easily relates to and understands the concerns and needs of these clients and their pets. Her own family includes two dogs, a cat, two rabbits and nine chickens - aka "The Wrock Flock" sharing her Lyndon Township home, along with her husband James.

Whether it's a pet trust or more traditional trusts and estates, Wrock finds it rewarding to give clients peace of mind by creating documents that give their wishes legal effect.

"I really enjoy the process," she says. "Each client is unique and there is always a new scenario or idea to work through, which is intellectually stimulating and allows for creativity, both of which are important to me. It's also a positive and productive outlet for my ability to catastrophize a situation and think through everything that could go wrong."

Wrock, who also focuses on intellectual property, earned her LL.M. (Taxation) from the University of Alabama in order to further increase her skills and marketability as an estate planner.

"Tax is so important in this field, even as the focus has shifted from estate and gift tax to income tax and basis planning," she says. "We're in a market that is very niche and specialized, even with subspecialties."

Her sub-focus areas within estate planning are pet planning, special needs planning, blended families, millennials, "DINK" (dual income/no kids) and "SINK" (single income/no kids) clients, planning for Medicaid and Veterans Benefits, and planning for clients that have ties in Florida where she also is licensed.

"But the pet planning is one of the areas I most enjoy because it has the potential to, quite literally, save an animal's life," she says.

In undergrad at the University of Michigan, where she earned her B.S. in Brain, Behavior, and Cognitive Science, Wrock's first course was about relationships between humans and other animals, the first of many animal courses.

"I joke that if animal behavior were offered as a degree, I would have qualified for it because I took so many of the courses," she says. "These courses made me want to incorporate work for animals with my eventual law practice, and in law school I quickly learned my personality was much better suited to transactional work than litigation, which drew me to estate planning. Combining animal law with estate planning by focusing on pet trusts was a natural fit."

An alumna of Wayne State University Law School, Wrock helped launch the school's first Animal Law class in 2012. She was a government relations intern with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and served as president of the school's Student Animal Legal Defense Fund.

"Our SALDF chapter was like a little home for me within the larger body of the law school," she says. "We were such a small group, but one of the most active because of our commitment. We hosted several events each year, from panels to film screenings to field trips and collaborated with other student groups where animal interests intersected others. It was a great example of what a small group of dedicated people can accomplish, and it was an honor to lead the chapter."

In 2014, Wrock earned the Wanda A. Nash Award from the State Bar of Michigan's Animal Law Section, as the graduating law student who has most advanced the field of animal law within the state.

"I felt so honored," she says. "I hadn't known of the award, so was completely surprised to receive it. I also hadn't known about Wanda at the time, and learning about her life and work then and through the years has made being a part of her legacy that much more special. Now, I'm on the Animal Law Section's Awards Committee, and have the privilege of being a small part of the selection process for this award each year."

Serving on the SALDF and receiving the Nash award led to Wrock getting involved in the nonprofit Attorneys for Animals organization, when AFA Founder and President Bee Friedlander invited her to join the team.

"I've immensely enjoyed working with the other board members to give voice to the animals who have no voice in our legal system," says Wrock, who currently serves as vice president and a director of AFA. "It's the perfect outlet, along with SBM's Animal Law Section, for staying involved in all areas of Animal Law since the only area of Animal Law that I regularly practice in is pet planning. With AFA, I've 'found my tribe,' as they say."

Wrock gives quarterly community presentations at All About Animals Rescue in Warren, guest lectures for Animal Law classes in the U.S. and Canada, and speaks and publishes for other attorneys so they can learn how to help clients protect their pets.

Her publications include "Ignorance is Bliss: Self-Regulation and Ag-Gag Laws in the American Meat Industry" in the Contemporary Justice Review, as well as guidance through the Institute of Continuing Legal Education and in various State Bar publications for attorneys drafting pet trusts.

"I think I've gained a lot of credibility in this area, even as a young attorney, because of a combination of these efforts and the fact it's clear I care about animals as much as my clients do I 'get it' they are family! It's not just an academic exercise for me, or taking advantage of a market opportunity, but a calling," she says. "While being proactive is the best approach, a long-term goal is to create a nonprofit specifically for the animals who do get left behind, so I can help animals on both ends-those whose humans plan for them and those whose humans don't."

In her leisure time, the Dearborn Heights native enjoys traveling with her husband, reading, learning and teaching. A trumpet player for almost two decades and an alumna of the Michigan Marching Band, she recently joined the U-M's Alumni Concert Band, and also does a weekly class with each of her dogs-"so we can have some one-on-one bonding time, which can be tough to accomplish at home with two dogs," she says.

Published: Mon, Jun 18, 2018