Pets are members of the family, so it is important to consider how to provide for them in your estate plan just as you would the human family members.
While we may think of pets as part of our family, the law considers them to be property. This means that you cannot leave anything in your will directly to a pet. The following are some steps to take to make sure your pet is protected:
- Caretaker. Pick one or two people who can act as your pet’s caretaker should anything happen to you. Make sure they are willing and able to assume the responsibility. Write out care instructions for them and let them know how to access your house. If you don’t have anyone who can take care of the pet, there are organizations that will perform this service, although they vary in quality, so be sure to check out the organizations before choosing one.
- Animal card. You should keep a card in your wallet that identifies your pet and gives information on how to contact the designated caretakers. You can also affix a sign to your home’s door or window that, in case of an emergency, announces that you have a pet.
- Power of attorney. Your power of attorney document can include language authorizing your agent to care for the pet, to spend your money to provide pet care, or to place your pet with a caregiver.
- Will. You can use your will to leave a pet to a caretaker along with money to care for the animal. Be aware, however, that the caretaker does not have a legal obligation to use the money on the pet. Once the caretaker has possession of the pet, he or she does not have to keep the pet or care for it in any particular manner. As long as you trust the person you are leaving the pet with, this shouldn’t be a problem.
- Trust. The most secure way to provide for a pet is to set up a pet trust, in which you name a trustee to ensure the pet is cared for. The trustee is obligated to make payments on a regular basis to your pet’s caregiver and pays for your pet’s needs as they come up. The trust should include the names of the trustee and caretaker, detailed care instructions, and the amount of money necessary to care for the pet.
To discuss a plan for your pet, contact your attorney.
Beezer the cat can be a member of the family, but what happens to Beezer or [insert your pet’s name] after you are gone? How can you ensure your pet will be cared for? One option is to create a pet trust. While you can give directions in your will to leave your pet to a caretaker, there is no guarantee that the caretaker will continue to care for your pet. A pet trust can provide a little more security for the pet because a third party — the trustee — is obligated to ensure the pet is cared for.
A trust is a legal arrangement through which one person (or an institution, such as a bank or law firm), called a “trustee,” holds legal title to property for another person, called a “beneficiary.” With a pet trust, the trustee makes payments on a regular basis to your pet’s caregiver and pays for your pet’s needs as they come up.
The federal tax code does not recognize a pet as a beneficiary of a trust. However, all 50 states and the District of Columbia have laws allowing pet trusts. Another option is to set up a traditional trust and place the pet in the trust along with the funds. The pet’s caregiver can be named the beneficiary.
The first step is to contact your attorney. Regardless of what type of trust you use, the following are some elements the trust should include:
- Caretaker. The trust will need to name a caretaker who will be willing and able to care for your pet. The caretaker should be someone who is comfortable with your animal.
- Care Instructions. The trust should include specific instructions on all aspects of the pet’s care, including the brand of food, activities the pet enjoys, and the preferred veterinarian.
- Funds. The amount of money necessary to fund the trust depends on the individual animal. Typically, you can leave the money to the trust in your will. Be warned that under most pet trust laws, the court can reduce the amount of caretaking funds to what it deems is reasonable for the care of the pet.
Have you considered your pet or pets when planning your estate? If not, you should, according to The Humane Society of the United States, the nation’s largest animal protection organization.
Pets usually have shorter life spans than humans, but people don’t always include their pets in their estate plans. If a pet owner doesn’t make plans for his or her pet, the animal can be left homeless and end up in an animal shelter.
To help pet owners ensure that that their wishes for their pets’ long-term care won’t be forgotten, misconstrued or ignored, The Humane Society has created a printable fact sheet, “Providing for Your Pet’s Future Without You.” The five-page fact sheet, which is available in English and Spanish, provides sample legal language for including pets in wills and trusts, plus suggestions on protecting pets through a power of attorney.
The Humane Society says that all too often, people erroneously assume that a long-ago verbal promise from a friend, relative or neighbor to provide a home for a pet will be sufficient years later. Even conscientious individuals who include their pets in their wills may neglect to plan for contingencies in which a will might not take effect, such as in the event of severe disability or a protracted will challenge.