Our pets bring a great deal of unconditional love and friendship into our lives. Many people view their pets as members of the family. What would happen to your pet in the event of your death or incapacity? Our pets are completely dependent on us for their care and well-being. It takes special planning if you wish to continue to provide for their well-being in the event they outlive you, or if you are unable to care for them while you’re alive. It’s heartbreaking when pets are relinquished to an animal shelter because their owner has passed away or has moved to an assisted living facility or nursing home that does not allow pets. These animals are often elderly themselves, and in many cases the shelter has no background information about the pet to assist as they try to rehome them. Even if there are family members who want to ensure a better outcome for the pet, they simply may not be able to take care of the animal or find it a suitable new home.
Make Formal Arrangements
One way to plan for the continuing care of your pet is to include such instructions in your will or trust. Your estate plan can identify your current pets and include any future pets. You can name the person who you wish to be the guardian for your pet should your pet outlive you. The best way to make sure that your wishes are fulfilled is by making formal arrangements. Work with an estate planning attorney to include language to provide for the care and ownership of your pet, as well as the money necessary to look after them, in your will, trust or other documents.
Select a Guardian/Caretaker
The first step is to identify a person or charitable organization, such as a private animal sanctuary or rescue group, who you would trust to take care of or rehome your pet in the event something should happen to you. Speak with these individuals and organizations to find out if they are both willing and able to care for your pet should the situation arise. Make sure you also select a couple of backups (and speak with them as well), since circumstances can change. If it’s an organization, find out if there are any special steps you might need to take ahead of time. Note – If you adopted your pet from a rescue group, keep their contact information readily accessible and as part of your pet’s important records. Some rescues may require that an animal adopted through them be returned to them should that pet’s owner be unable to care for them or pass away.
Planning Using a Will
Under your will you can provide for your pet to be given to someone you trust. You can make a gift of your pet to a trusted family member or friend. A pet owner cannot leave money or property directly to their pet since animals are considered property themselves. However, a pet owner may leave a sum of money directly to the person designated to care for their pet, along with a request that the money be used for the pet’s care. It is important to select a caretaker you trust and who will be devoted to the pet, because the caretaker has no legal obligation to use the money for the purpose specified. Keep in mind that your will only takes effect upon your death, and there will be a delay before it is formally recognized by a court. The time between death and the authority of the Executor to act can vary from several weeks to several months. Plans should be made to ensure for the care of your pet during this interim period. At the bare minimum, designate someone to be an emergency, temporary caregiver. Consider someone who lives close to your residence and has easy access to your home. A set of keys should be given to this trusted individual. For other suggestions on how to handle this interim period, please see Planning for the Unexpected with Your Pets.
Planning Using a Durable Power of Attorney
If you become incapacitated or unable to care for your pet, through a durable power of attorney you can include provisions that authorize your agent to make decisions and spend funds for your pet, and perhaps even grant them the authority to place your pet with permanent caregivers if appropriate. It is important to note that a durable power of attorney is only in effect while you are living and ceases to exist once you have passed away. So, it could not be used to cover a period between your death and the probating of your will.
Planning Using a Pet Trust
A stronger, more complicated legal option is to create a pet trust. Pet trusts create a legal obligation to care for your pet, provide accountability for the money you designate for that purpose and allow you to set up a caretaking plan. A pet trust can be created under a will, however, it will only become effective after your death and subsequent probate process. A pet trust can also be created as part of a Revocable Living Trust. As such, it can take effect while you are living, should you become incapacitated, as well as after your death. The grantor (the pet’s owner) is the person who creates the trust. The trustee is the person who manages the assets in the trust, and the beneficiary is the pet. Generally, you will choose a caretaker to take physical care of your pet and a trustee to manage the funds. The trustee will distribute the assets of the trust to the caregiver as necessary for the care of the animals. It’s generally a good idea to name different individuals as trustee and as caregiver. Having separate people for each role creates “checks and balances” and helps prevent any potential conflicts of interest. You should also have a couple of alternates for both of these important positions, in case the first person is unable or unwilling to fulfill the role. Anyone who you name to serve in any role in your estate documents should be someone you trust. Provisions that can be included in a pet trust:
- State which pets are covered, including future pets, and possibly ways to identify them such as microchip registration to prevent fraud.
- Name a caretaker, as well as successor caretakers, in case the person named is unavailable.
- Leave an amount of money to be used for pet care.
- Determine the amount of funds needed to adequately cover the expenses for your pet’s care. This amount should be based on how long the animal’s life span is projected to be and the estimated cost for the level of care you want them to receive.
- Avoid designating an unreasonably large amount of money in a pet trust, as that could encourage heirs and remainder beneficiaries to contest it. Also, some states impose funding limits.
- Describe in detail your pet’s standard of living and care.
- Pet care instructions should be a separate document that are incorporated into your pet trust by reference. This way you can change these instructions as your pet’s needs change over time, without having to update your pet trust.
- You can specify things such as the type of food they should be fed, their exercise schedule, regular trips to the vet and the groomers, even mid-day dog walks if their new caretaker will be away at work during the day.
- Possibly require regular inspections of your pet by the trustee.
- Name a person to go to court and enforce the terms of the trust if necessary.
- Designate a remainder beneficiary in the event the funds in the pet trust are not exhausted by the time your pet passes away.
Pet trusts are available in all states. States do vary on the length of time that a living pet trust can be enforced, and some states impose funding limits. In Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C., a trust may be created for the care of an animal or animals alive during the grantor’s lifetime. The trust terminates upon the death of the animal, or upon the death of the last surviving animal, covered by the trust. This is good news for those companion animals who have longer life expectancies than dogs and cats, such as horses, parrots, and tortoises. As you can see, the options for including your pet in your estate plan range from simple to complex. Additionally, there are differences in the laws depending on your state of residence. That’s why it’s important to work with a qualified estate planning attorney to guide you through this process. The most important thing to do is to have a plan and to take steps to implement it. Then you will have peace of mind knowing that you have looked out for your pet’s wellbeing and taken the necessary steps to ensure their lifetime care, should something happen to you. SageVest Wealth Management believes that comprehensive financial planning includes implementing strategies to support you and those you love both during your lifetime and after. Please contact us to learn more about how our true wealth management approach integrates investment and broader financial decisions under one roof.