PAWrents’ Guide to Estate Planning for Man’s Best Friend

Our pets are like family too. It is common for clients to worry about what will happen to their pets when they pass away, but a good way to avoid this worry is to incorporate pet ownership into an estate plan. Having a prearranged plan in place for the care of your pets will give you peace of mind and ease the transition for your pets. If you elect to incorporate these provisions in your estate planning documents, here are four things you’ll want to keep in mind:

Talk with the Beneficiary

For some of us, caring for a pet that belonged to a deceased loved one is a source of comfort and a way to honor their memory. For others, it can be an unwanted burden that comes with complicated emotions such as guilt or obligation.

It’s important to select a beneficiary who will maintain your standard of care for your pets. Making that selection involves having a conversation with your candidates, setting your standards, and asking them if they have the capacity for such a commitment. This conversation will not only help you rule out beneficiaries who would refuse your pets, but also help you mitigate some of the difficulties of the transition, giving your beneficiaries peace of mind as well.

So, how can we make sure our fur babies are well cared for when we’re gone? While not every detail of your estate plan needs to be shared with beneficiaries, assuming responsibility for pets is something that should never go undiscussed. It will ultimately leave you and the beneficiary with peace of mind.

Real-Life Example

We recently had a client pass away leaving behind her two beloved pets. One of her pets was old and declining in health which required frequent trips to the vet, detailed care instructions, and expensive prescriptions.

Our client listed five different families, in succession, to take custody of her pets when she passed and left funds to provide for their care. Even with the promise of funds for care, all the listed beneficiaries declined to take the pets. Worse, none of them were aware they were named as beneficiaries of the pets.

Thankfully we were able to locate a friend of the client who was willing to take the pets. I still receive photos of the pets making themselves at home with their new family. While this story has a happy ending, it’s sad knowing the decedent was unable to hand-pick the new owner for her beloved pets. All of this could have been prevented if she simply had a conversation with the intended beneficiaries of the pets.

Provide Financial Support

Pets are expensive. In my story above, the pets were spoiled and had fragile health conditions, which is why our client provided a cash gift to whomever accepted them. If your beneficiaries are concerned about being able to afford to maintain the animals to your standards, providing the monetary support for upkeep could help beneficiaries be more willing to assume the new responsibility of pet ownership.

There are several ways to provide that financial support. It could be as simple as a specific monetary bequest, or as detailed as a trust set up for the maintenance of your pets. Pet trusts can require trustees to check in on the animals and receive reports from their veterinarian. You should discuss your options with your estate planning attorney to determine what option is right for you based on your circumstances.

Provide Instructions

An important part of pet planning is to ease the transition on our pets. One way to do this is to provide detailed instructions for your beneficiaries. When and how much do you feed your pet? Do they have dietary restrictions or take medications? Where are their immunization records? These are all questions that may feel overwhelming to a beneficiary. Providing instructions for the care of your pets will help them feel more equipped to take on the responsibility. Instructions like these should be stored alongside your estate planning documents where your personal representative or trustee can easily access them when the time comes.

Plan for the Unexpected

Even if your beneficiaries agree to accept your pets and all their concerns are mitigated in your plan, it is still a good idea to list a few back-ups, also known as “contingent beneficiaries.” Sometimes people are allergic to cats, but don’t realize it until they live with one. If your documents are a bit dated when the time comes, the life circumstances of your beneficiaries may have changed or some of them may have passed away themselves. The pets you have when you make your estate plan may also be different than the pets you have at the time of your death (maybe Fido has since died, but Rover is now keeping you company). Describing unknown pets generally, or as members of a group can be helpful to make sure new pets are provided for under your plan. For example, rather than “I leave Rover to the care of my friend…” say instead “I leave Rover and/or any dogs I have at the time of my death to the care of my friend…”  Having a “plan B” (or even a “plan C”) can prevent you from having to update your documents or relying on your trustee or personal representative to select an owner for you.

In the event your plans fall through, and your trustee or personal representative becomes responsible for finding a new owner for your pets, you can still inform their decision by writing a “Statement of Intent.” This can be a letter provided to your trustee or personal representative, or it can be a short paragraph inside your will or trust. Use this as an opportunity to proclaim your intentions for the care of your pets.

Maybe you want to make sure they end up with an owner who keeps them inside (this is particularly important for declawed cats). Maybe you want to make sure the new owner has other dogs, so your dog isn’t lonely. If the worst-case scenario arises and the pets must be taken to a shelter, you can specify that it be a no-kill shelter. This will give whoever is responsible for finding a new home for your pets the confidence that they are honoring your wishes, even if your plan falls through.

No plan is fool proof. But there are many easy ways to secure a happy future for the pets that have brought us so much joy during our lives. When you plan for your future and your estate, don’t leave out your furry friends!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *