Money & Retire

What About Your Pets When You Die? 3 Estate Plan Tips

You love your pets and have made them part of your family. But you may not be thinking about what would happen to them if you were no longer there to provide a safe and happy home. Of course, no one wants to think about dying someday—and besides, you can’t bequeath a pile of cash directly to your cat, dog, or parakeet anyway—but that doesn’t mean you can’t still include them in your estate plan. Attorney Liza Hanks says you’ve got several options to ensure that your furry friends are well taken care of in case something happens to you.

1. Leave some money to a pet-loving friend. You may leave money to a trusted friend for the care of your pet or pets by making a gift to that person in your will. You are trusting your friend to take good care of your pet, but that’s what friends are for. This is an informal approach to providing for your pet, but it often works just fine.

“As an example, let’s say that Lisa will leave $5,000 to her friend Kathy, for the lifetime care of Lisa’s cat, Solar Sam,” says Hanks. “Lisa’s will says that if there’s any more money left after Solar Sam’s death, she requests (but does not legally require) that Kathy donate that money to the SPCA in her town. Legally, this gift is to Kathy, with no strings attached, so if Kathy doesn’t use it to care for Solar Sam, no one can sue her.”

2. Create a pet trust. All 50 states and Washington, DC, now allow people to create a pet trust to hold money for the benefit of your pet. In doing this, you put someone in charge of managing and spending it, following a written set of instructions that you provide. If the trustee of the pet trust doesn’t use the money to care for your pet, they can be sued. This method is more formal than leaving a monetary gift to a friend, but unlike the gift method, it is legally binding.

Here’s an example of how a pet trust can be set up: Frederick’s will creates a pet trust for the lifetime benefit of his English bulldog, Sarge. He names his friend, Cal, as the trustee and his sister, Cora, as Sarge’s caretaker. Frederick names his brother, Hector, as the person with the right to go to court to enforce the trust’s terms, if he thinks that they aren’t being followed. The trust specifies that the money in the trust is to be used for medical care, food, and adequate housing for Sarge. If there’s money left when Sarge dies, Cal is directed to donate it to an English bulldog rescue group of his choosing. (Legally, if the money in the trust isn’t used for Sarge, Hector could go to court to enforce the terms of the trust.)

3. Leave money to a pet rescue organization. “You might want to explore leaving money to a pet rescue organization, often called no-kill sanctuaries, for the lifetime care of your pet,” says Hanks. “Many clients have used this method to benefit both an organization and their pets.

“For example, Mavis’s will left $5,000 for the lifetime care of her beloved canary, Tweetie, to the BirdHouse, an organization that Mavis knew about that provides care for canaries. Her will also stated that if Tweetie died and there was still money available from that gift, it should be used for BirdHouse’s other birds.”

“Most people consider their pets members of the family, so it makes sense to arrange for their continued care just like you would any other family member,” concludes Hanks. “Hopefully you will be there to provide for them for many years to come. But it still pays to plan ahead and to remember them when you create your will. You will feel so much better knowing that they will be nurtured and provided for in the future no matter what.”

If you want to leave money for a beloved pet, you can absolutely do that in your will,” says Hanks, author of Every Californian’s Guide to Estate Planning: Wills, Trusts and Everything Else “Even if you don’t make any particular plans for them, they are still considered to be your ‘property’ and would pass to whoever inherits your estate otherwise: If you leave a will, your pets would go to your beneficiaries, and if you don’t leave a will, they would go to the person who would inherit your estate under state law. Luckily for pet owners, there are several ways to leave money for their care.”

Every Californian’s Guide to Estate Planning covers the estate planning issues that most Californians need to think about. It will help you understand not only the basics of leaving money and property to loved ones and charities, naming a guardian for children, planning for beloved pets, and so on, but also what’s unique to making an estate plan in California. The book also includes access to essential worksheets that help you get started on writing a will, preparing a trust, naming beneficiaries, and much, much more.

To learn more about pet trusts, please visit https://www.aspca.org/pet-care/pet-planning/pet-trust-primer or https://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/pet-trusts.html.

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