Chances are you have an estate plan in place to make sure your loved ones will be taken care of when you’re gone. But have you thought about what will happen to your pet?
Pets have a place in our hearts and homes, but under the law pets are typically considered tangible personal property, no different than a car or furniture. Considering some breeds of cats and dogs live into their 20s and some species of birds, like parrots, macaws, and cockatoos, can live 40-60+ years, there’s no guarantee you will outlive your pet. That’s why it is vital to have a proper plan in place.
Setting the stage
First, determine who will care for your pet. This should be someone you know well and trust to carry out your wishes. Talk to that person and make certain they agree to assume responsibility for your pet. As an alternative, some local or national charitable or humane organizations will care for your pet after you pass. It helps if you give a donation to defray the cost of that care. Check their policies to learn how they place pets and how long they will house them before making a permanent placement.
Next, put your wishes in writing.
What are the options?
Wills, memorandums, and Pet Trusts are the most common methods. Each has its own pros and cons.
Will – Leaving your pet to someone in your will can be as simple as including a statement such as: “I leave my pet dog, Tucker, to my sister Jane Smith.” This statement is legally binding and establishes that Jane will inherit Tucker. However, Jane is not obligated by law to keep Tucker.
Letter/Memorandum (Separate from a Will) – Some states allow individuals to create a binding letter (or memorandum) leaving their tangible property to specific individuals when they pass if the document is signed by them. This may be a good option if, for instance, you are going to have surgery or are going on a trip and want to get something in writing quickly so that your pet is protected in case something unexpected happens. From a legal perspective this memorandum will be considered separate and apart from any Will. Memorandums are not valid in every state, so it’s best to consult a local attorney.
Pet Trust– A Pet Trust identifies your pet by name, designates a caretaker, appoints a Trustee to manage any set-aside money, and dictates the type of care your pet will receive after you’re gone. The Trustee will be in charge of the money and will have the legal responsibility to ensure that the caretaker uses the money as ordered by the Trust, including food, veterinary care, routine medications and supplements, and any other recurring costs over your pet’s life. The pet will live with the caretaker who will see to their daily needs. There may be remaining funds in the trust after the pet passes; therefore, a remainder beneficiary must be named.
A pet trust is only supposed to cover the expenses of caring for your animal. Some states allow interested parties to reduce the amount of funds held for a pet’s care if a court deems the trust to be overfunded, so it’s best to clearly document your cost assumptions.
Remember, the most important thing is that you choose a plan and implement it. An estate planning professional can help with the specific details. Visit www.naepc.org to find an accredited estate planner near you. You’ll rest easy knowing that your beloved pet will be in good hands.
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Additional Resources on Estate Planning for Pets:
Tracy Craig is a partner and chair of Mirick O’Connell’s Trusts and Estates Group. She works with individuals in all areas of estate and gift tax planning. She specializes in estate administration, prenuptial agreements, guardianships and conservatorships, and all aspects of charitable planning. She serves in various fiduciary capacities, including trustee, conservator and personal representative. She also works with clients on issues facing elders.
Tracy is a Fellow of the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel and an AEP®.
Photo by Steffen Kastner on Unsplash