For many people, a pet is a vital member of the family. In the same way that we’d want our children taken care of in our absence, we want the best for our animals if we should ever leave them behind. While you cannot leave your beloved pets money or property (tell that to the late Leona Helmsley), a well-drafted estate plan can help you help your pet to lead a good life in the event of your death. Estate planning is just as essential for your family as it is for your pet.

Importance of Estate Planning for Your Pets

If you are among the 65 percent of households in America that own at least one pet, you may have thought about what would happen to your pet if you passed away. In the best case scenario, a family member or friend would step into to take over the caregiving duties. However, this does not always happen, especially in smaller families where there are few or no heirs. Many times, a pet will end up in an animal shelter to be put up for adoption or euthanized.

Putting a Pet in Your Will

Money or property cannot be left to a pet in your will. If you try, these resources will instead be included in your residuary estate when you pass. However, you can use your living trust or will to leave your pet and funds to a trusted caretaker. For example, say you want to leave your Golden Retriever to your daughter, but she is on a tight budget and unable to pay for dog food and vet bills. Your will can stipulate that your daughter receive the dog as well as the money to care for it.

Because your pet will belong to someone else after your death, this type of arrangement is considered legal. However, it is important to understand that the person to whom your bequeath your pet has no obligation to use the money given from your will on your pet. The funds are given to the person outright, and they can use it as they wish with no legal recourse. For this reason, it is important to leave your pet to someone whom you trust. It is also a good idea to have an alternate caretaker in your will in the event that the first cannot fulfill their duty.

Creating a Pet Trust Document

While the process is generally more complex, a pet trust is often a stronger legal option for individuals who wish to leave their pets in the best hands possible after their death. With a pet trust, you are able to leave your pet and some money to a caretaker with a legal obligation that the person will care for your pet in your absence. If that caregiver fails to care for your pet according to your instructions, that person could be sued. In a pet trust, you have the option to:

  • Name one or more pets that are covered
  • Name a designated caretaker for your pet(s)
  • State a specific amount of money to be given to the caretaker
  • State what should be done with the leftover money once the animal dies
  • Name a person to enforce the terms of the trust (in court and otherwise)
  • Describe how your pet should be cared for

Although pet trusts can help ensure that your pet is well cared for after your death, they can be quite expensive and somewhat inflexible if certain circumstances following your death should alter the terms. However, trusts create a legal obligation and are available in all states.

Tips for Pet Estate Planning

Before putting anything on paper, there are a few things you should consider when estate planning. First, consider who will be your pet’s caretaker. This person should be capable, willing, and responsible enough to follow your instructions for the long-term. If your pet has special needs, consider whether the person will be able to properly care for the animal.

You will also want to consider how much money you have set aside and if you will need more. Make a list of pet care expenses, such as pet food, toys, monthly grooming, medications, vet bills, and unanticipated expenses. Also take the time to outline a care plan that includes written instructions for the future caretaker, such as how much the pet eats, how often it eats, and contact information for local vets and groomers.

Contact a Trusts & Estates Attorney

Once you have made the basic decisions regarding your pet’s future, you will need to formalize your terms to ensure that they are carried out. A trusts & estates attorney can assist with the creation and implementation of an estate plan.