If you’re an animal lover and have a pet of your own, you likely consider your pet to be a member of your family. Since pets can provide protection, emotional support, and unconditional love, such consideration is often well deserved.
In stark contrast, the law considers your pet similar to personal property. That means that without plans in place, your pet will be treated like your couch or vacuum in the event of your death or incapacity – except that your couch doesn’t bark or make other noises and need daily care.
If you become incapacitated (a car accident, etc.) or die without having a plan, neighbors may call the police about an animal in distress. If none of your family or friends volunteers to take your pet in, the animal is most likely going to be taken to a shelter. What happens from there depends on the specific shelter.
Factors in Deciding on a Pet Care Plan
If you have close friends or family members (especially if they share your home) who you know would take care of your pet the way you want, this may not be a concern for you.
One way to plan for your pet is to state in your Will to whom you want to give your pet (notice the language treating the pet as a piece of property to be transferred). In addition, you can also give money “for the care of my pet” to the person to whom you give your pet. However, with these bequests in your Will, there will be no continuing oversight to ensure your pet will be cared for as you wish and the money you leave for its care will be so used.
Therefore, if you name the same person to receive your pet and the money for the pet’s care, that person could drop the animal off at a shelter and use the money to buy a new TV—and face no penalties for doing so.
Nevertheless, this strategy could work if the person to whom you give your pet also really loves your pet. And, you can consider naming someone different to receive the money “for the care of your pet”. This might work in the situation where your chosen pet caregiver is not good with money and the person to whom you give the pet care money is someone you trust to use the money for your pet.
Since a Will is required to go through a court process known as probate, which can last for years, your pet and the money for the pet’s care could remain in limbo during that time. Moreover, a Will only goes into effect upon your death, so if you’re incapacitated by accident or illness, it will be useless for protecting your pet.
Pet Trusts Give the Most Protection
It you want to avoid these limitations and ensure your animal companions are taken care of as you would want in the event of your death or incapacity, another strategy is to create a pet trust. A Pet trusts can go into effect immediately. It allows you to lay out detailed, legally binding rules for how the funds in the trust can be used. Pet trusts can cover multiple pets, work in cases of incapacity as well as death, and they remain in effect until the last surviving animal dies. Here are a few of the most important things to consider when setting up a pet trust:
The most important decision when creating a pet trust is naming the caregiver. The caregiver will have custody of your pet and is responsible for your pet’s daily care for the remainder of your pet’s life. As with naming a guardian for your children, make certain you choose someone you know will watch over and love your pet as you would. Consider the caregiver’s physical ability—naming someone frail to raise your Great Dane puppy might be asking too much. Also make certain your pet fits in with the caregiver’s family members and other pets. Discuss your wishes ahead of time with a potential caregiver—never assume they’re willing to take on the responsibility. In case your first-choice for caregiver is unable to take in your pet, name at least one or two alternates. If you don’t know any suitable caregivers, there are a variety of charitable groups that can provide for your pet if you’re no longer able to.
Trustees are tasked with managing the trust’s funds and ensuring your wishes for the animal’s care are carried out in the manner the trust spells out. Given the potential conflict of interest, you may consider naming someone other than the caregiver as trustee.
Explain your pet’s basic requirements: dietary needs, exercise regimen, medications, and veterinary care. Be sure you think about all your pet’s future needs, including extra services like grooming, boarding, and walking. Beyond basic care, you can also lay out instructions for just about any other special treatment you want your pet(s) to receive. From sleeping arrangements and yummy treats to weekly visits to the park and favorite toys, a pet trust can provide your pets with whatever lifestyle you wish for them.
Finally, don’t forget to address what you want done at the end of your pet’s life, such as burial, cremation, or memorial services.
When determining how much money to put aside for your pet’s care, you should carefully consider the pet’s age, health, and care needs. Remember, you’re covering the cost of caring for the animal for the rest of its life, and even basic expenses can add up over time. But most pet owners want their beloved pets to receive more than just the bare necessities. Given this, make sure you calculate the costs for any special treatments or services you include in the trust and leave enough money to pay for them. And if you end up leaving more money behind than needed, you can always name a remainder beneficiary, such as a family member or charity, to inherit any funds not spent on the pet.
Pet Care Planning is part of our Comprehensive Estate Planning
If you have pets, we can help you make a plan so that your pets will be taken care of even if you become temporarily unavailable, incapacitated or pass away. Contact us for more information.
We don’t just draft documents; we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love. Our initial appointment is called a Family Wealth Planning Session, during which you will get more financially organized and learn how to best support (whether financially or in other ways) the people you love. You can begin by contacting us or by scheduling a Family Wealth Planning Session.