Pets & Advanced Planning
Our pets are often seen not only as our friends and companions, but also as our family members. It’s hard to imagine living our lives without our pets. But what if your pets outlive you? What if you are no longer able to care for them?
If pets are a part of your life, it’s important to plan ahead not only for yourself, but also for them. Consider putting documents into place that clearly state who will look after your pets, how your pets’ safety can be ensured, and what finances (if any) will be provided to pay for their needs. You can start now by printing a pet alert card for your wallet and creating a pet dossier for each of your pets as suggested by the ASPCA.
Like any end-of-life wishes, be sure to talk to your family and your pets’ potential caregivers about your wishes for your pets should you become unable to care for them. The following are some of the tools available for ensuring your pets’ future. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages, including associated costs and tax implications.
Planning for your pets’ future can be as straightforward as gifting your pets to someone in your will, with or without an accompanying financial gift to offset their expenses. In this scenario, your pets (and any financial gift) become the property of the beneficiary. You can convey your wishes for your pets’ future to your beneficiary, but these requests are not legally enforceable. You can also name alternate beneficiaries if your first choice cannot or will not take your pets.
Gifting your pets to a beneficiary via your will may make the most sense for your situation. However, it is worthwhile noting that the ASPCA does not recommend this path because of possible delays between your death and the implementation of your will. The ASPCA also notes that court is not obligated to find your pet another home after your estate is closed if problems arise with your pets’ new caregiver.1
A pet trust is a legal arrangement that provides money for a designated caretaker to cover pet care expenses if you become disabled or die. A trustee manages and distributes the trust’s funds. Depending on the type of pet trust you set up, a pet trust can take effect immediately or upon your death, and can offer you the option to dictate, in detail, the care your pets should receive. Pet trusts are legally enforceable, meaning the trustees and caregivers are required to follow the terms of the trust and to use the funds for the pets’ care.
All 50 states and the District of Columbia now allow pet owners to set up pet trusts, but the laws that govern them vary by state. Both Delaware and Pennsylvania allow a pet trust to continue to exist for the lifetime of the last living pet covered by the trust; however, some states set a maximum number of years the pet trust may remain in place.
If you’re setting up a pet trust, you need to provide a reasonable amount of money for both the trustee and the pet caretaker. Pet care costs will vary with the age and health of your pet, but you’ll want to cover food, grooming, vet care, and additional expenses. Using the proceeds from a life insurance policy is one way to fund care of your pets. This can be an affordable way to care for the pets you leave behind. If you pass away before your pets and while the policy is in force, your death benefit can fund a pet trust that you have established. For more information about pet trusts, visit the website of pet estate planning expert Gerry W. Beyer or check out the Pet Trust Primer by the ASPCA.
Pet Protection Agreement
A pet protection agreement is a contract between a pet owner (you) and a pet guardian (the person you’ve selected to care for your pet after your death or if you should become unable to care for your pet yourself). Unlike a pet trust, you can set up a pet protection agreement without an attorney using a form from Legal Zoom. A pet protection agreement does not necessarily require that you provide money for your pet’s care, although you may choose to do so. However, if you will be leaving a large sum of money for the care of your pets, experts recommend that you opt for a pet trust instead. You can find more information about pet protection agreements at Legal Zoom.
Pet care and placement programs
Some pet rescue groups and pet sanctuaries offer pet care and placement programs, yet they may require a per-animal fee or bequest detailed in your will. If this is an option you would consider, visit these facilities to see how animals are cared for, who looks after them, and whether the animals are receiving adequate attention and exercise before making arrangements with them. Also, review their adoptive placement criteria and practices to ensure they would place your pet in a good home. Since many rescue groups have small budgets, discuss what might happen if the organization faces funding or staff shortages. Be sure to draw up the agreement with the group in writing before putting it into your will.
Even if you are planning to leave your pets to a specific individual caregiver, you may still wish to identify a pet rescue group or sanctuary where your pet should be placed if your designated caregiver and your designated backup caregivers fall through.
The best place to start a conversation about this type of estate planning is with your accountant, attorney, and life insurance representative. The ASPCA also offers online tools and information for planning for care of your pets.
This information is just a starting point to help you plan ahead for life’s foreseeable and unforeseeable medical emergencies. It isn’t a suitable substitute for professional, medical, or legal advice.
1 “Informal vs. Formal Arrangements,” ASPCA, accessed March 17, 2021, https://www.aspca.org/pet-care/pet-planning/informal-vs-formal-arrangements.