By Jacqueline G. Goodwin, Ed.D.
Is your pet a member of the family or piece of property? For most people, the answer is: both. No matter your emotional connection, the law considers pets to be tangible personal property, like a car, jewelry, or furniture. That’s one good reason to include your pets in your estate plan, lest they be left homeless or sent to a shelter if you die before they do.
As you develop a plan for your pet’s care, be sure to consider these three key questions.
1. Who’s in Charge?
Consider who would take care of your pet in the event that you die. Perhaps it’s your children, siblings, nieces or nephews, or maybe a close friend. Before making any decisions, you’ll need to have a frank conversation — not just to gauge their interest, but also to delve into whether they will actually be able to care for your pet, or whether they have any restrictions (housing, allergies, mobility) that might keep them from being as attentive as you’d like.
If you don’t have anyone in your life to care for your pet, you’ll want to find a charitable organization that can help. The Humane Pennsylvania Foundation, for example, can make estate arrangements for surviving pets. Identify a local group now, and find out what it requires in return for finding your pet a good home. Organizations may need you to sign some sort of agreement in advance and leave a specific sum of money to pay for the cost of care.
2. Do I Need A Will?
If you want to plan out where your things go after you die, a will is probably a good idea.
If you’re leaving your pets to an individual, you may want to give a lump sum to help pay for some costs associated with your pet’s future care. To determine approximate costs, attorney Peter J. Daley, of Peter J. Daley and Associates, recommends that you calculate the annual costs to care for the pet, and multiply that figure by the pet’s remaining life expectancy, plus add some extra for medical care as the pet ages.
However, if you’re contemplating leaving a larger amount, for example, to pay for much or all of your pet’s future needs, including not only food and vet visits, but also medication and grooming, plus any boarding, walking services, and other costs, Daley recommends you create a trust to manage the money for your pet. Consult an attorney for more advice if you are contemplating this route. Before making formal arrangements to provide for the long-term care of your pet, seek help from professionals who can guide you in preparing legal documents that can protect your interests and those of your pet.
3. What Paperwork Do I Need?
Once you have both a plan and a budget for your pet’s care, you have two ways to spell out your wishes in your estate plan: either within your will, or via a separate pet trust.
A will has the advantage of simplicity; including a pet in your will is usually relatively inexpensive. As with any other piece of property, you state in your will who you’ve chosen to inherit your pet upon your death — but you can also leave that person funds to help defray some of the cost of the pet’s care. Typically, the will would state that the person would only receive the money upon accepting responsibility for the pet. Your executor will be responsible for securing the agreement and passing along the funds.
Use this approach only if you truly trust your chosen caregiver. Generally speaking, a will won’t let you guarantee that the money will actually be used to care for the pet on an ongoing basis — or even that the designated guardian won’t give your pet away.
Daley says, “You can get more control, but with greater expense, with a pet trust, which lets you set aside money with specific rules as to how the money will be used. You’d name a trustee to manage the funds, and ensure that the money is used solely for the care of the pet.”
He recommends that you name different people to be the trustee and the pet’s caretaker. The trustee will be responsible for providing money to the caretaker, ensuring that the pet is cared for, and — if necessary — finding a new caretaker if any problems arise. “Get the advice of an attorney who specializes in estates and trusts,” says Daley. “You want to make sure that everything is done correctly.
“Ultimately, the decisions you make will depend on what works best for your family, your pet, and your financial situation. But you’ll get more peace of mind knowing that you’ve secured some sort of care for your pet after you die — which is better than having no plan in place at all.”