Estate Planning Options for Pet Owners: Planning for a Crisis and after Death.

Article written by Bennie A. Wall, Esq.

As a pet owner, you should have plans in place ensuring your pet’s care for both your incapacity and your death.

Effective estate planning for pet owners will consider not only with whom you want to leave your beloved animal if orphaned, but also what should happen if you become incapacitated. This article will provide you with a quick outline of the many methods of to ensure your pet is well cared for when the unthinkable happens.

Planning for Incapacity

Relocation Planning, Incapacity, and the Power of Attorney

With a rapidly aging population and great advances in healthcare, many more Americans find that they may need skilled nursing care. While there are options to receive care in the home, many individuals are forced to consider other options and may have to move to a nursing home toward the end of life. Those who have pets have undoubtedly found that their furry companions have been a great source of company and comfort. Should the day come that the senior must leave the comfort and care of home, someone needs to ensure that their beloved companion has a place to go as well.

A little planning on your part can go a long way to ensure that if the time comes that you must transition to a new home that won’t allow your pet to come with you, then your pet will be well cared for by someone you trust. I suggest clients talk with family and friends about their openness for taking in pets. For a few considerations to keep in mind when deciding who to choose as your pet’s caregiver, check out our blog post: Six Considerations When Choosing a Pet’s Caregiver.

In case you are unable to transition your pet to a caregiver before you lose capacity, you should ensure that your Agent under your General Durable Power of Attorney has the powers he or she needs to properly care for your pet, to use funds for your pet’s care, and to transition your pet to a new home as needed. Some clients ask to have provisions for a committee (often consisting of their Agent, a family member, and a veterinarian) to assist with the transition of the pet. Regardless of the level of planning you choose, the end goal is your peace of mind that your pet will be cared for when you no longer can provide care.

Emergency Planning

Incapacity does not only strike the elderly. There may be a time that younger individuals experience periods of incapacity and, depending on the needs of their particular pets, they may find this brief period to be detrimental to their pet’s wellbeing. That is why it is important to have a plan in place to ensure that, in case of an emergency, someone can gain access to your animal and knows the level of care your pet needs. I suggest to clients that they keep a notebook about the pet’s care and routines—especially if the pet has any special dietary or medical needs. Let a trusted friend know where the notebook is located and how he or she can access your house.

Estate Planning and Pets

When a pet owner passes away, one often overlooked member of the family is the beloved animal. Just as an owner should have a plan in place in case of an emergency or in case of incapacity, the owner should also have a plan in place upon death. Many of the same considerations are relevant as with incapacity planning above. One of the key questions that I get as an Estate Planner is: “What tools are available for me to care for my pets when I pass away?”

Gifting the Pet to a Caregiver

If you have a caregiver in mind, you want to be sure that your estate planning documents—your Will or Revocable Living Trust—makes a specific gift of the animal to the caregiver. As much as your beloved pet feels like family, the laws consider animals personal property of the owner, and so animals can be gifted just like any other personal property. As with any effective estate plan, you will want to be sure that you incorporate a Plan B in case circumstances change for your nominated caregiver who may become unable to take in your pet when you pass away.

Gifting Money to the Caregiver

While you are under no obligation to do so, many of my clients choose to leave behind some funds to pass along with the pet. Many intend that this help the caregiver take care of the animal. If you intend to leave behind a cash gift to accompany your pet, you will want to make sure the language in your Estate Plan is clear regarding the circumstances of the gift. You do not want to say $5,000 and my dog, Turner, to Susie Que, because this language does not condition the cash gift to acceptance of the pet. So you must be careful with drafting to ensure your wishes are easily and effectively carried out. For those who want more assurance or to leave more detailed instructions, a Pet Trust can be an invaluable tool.

Using a Pet Trust

Pet Trusts are effective tools for leaving behind funds to ensure that your pet is cared for. You have undoubtedly heard famous cases of the ultra-wealthy leaving behind millions to beloved pets. These instances are extreme and often catch the media’s attention, but there is real value in incorporating pet trust planning into your own estate planning—especially when the continued care of your pet is a top priority.

I recently spoke on Pet Trusts on a local talk radio show, Raising The Bar. If you’re interested in hearing it, here is a link to the show. Put simply, on the most basic level a Pet Trust allows you to make sure your pet is taken care of by a trusted caregiver and that there are funds put aside exclusively for your pet’s care.

Some individuals, unfortunately, do not have a choice of caregiver who they can trust to manage the pet’s funds responsibly. While an individual may be a great caregiver for the pet’s wellbeing, that same individual may not be the most financially responsible. When you are thinking about leaving behind a larger sum of money carefully calculated to cover your pet’s care for the rest of its life, then you want to feel confident that the funds will last.

If that is the case, then, depending on the life expectancy of your pet, its annual care costs, and the resources to leave behind, you may choose to have Pet Trust funds remain with your trusted financial advisor. You could nominate a Trustee to ensure that the caregiver is taking good care of your beloved pet while leaving the financial management to those best suited for the job. In any event, with the great flexibility trust-based estate planning affords you, there are many more possibilities that can be addressed when planning for your estate.

We hope you found this information helpful. If you would like to learn more about how you can effectively plan your estate—including for any pets—then call today to set up a time to meet with one of our experienced estate planning attorneys. Check out our other valuable estate planning resources across our website and our Facebook page. To learn more about the basics, sign up for one of our free public seminars.