Do I Need Estate Planning For My Pets?

Not many people think to make arrangements for their beloved pet(s) in case of their untimely demise. However, do you know what would happen to your precious fur baby if you were gone?

Many pet parents aren't leaving that decision in the hands of their family or friends. In fact, attorneys are seeing a growing number of responsible pet owners leaving precise instructions in their wills as to their wishes concerning their four-legged (or winged and gilled) members of the family.

Do I need estate planning for my pets? Read on to get the facts about this important topic that will help you decide.

When Do I Need Estate Planning For My Pets?

If you fall under any of the following categories, you may want to consider estate planning for your pets.

Longevity of Pets

Some pets like various types of parrots, reptiles and tortoises can live upwards of 75 years and have a very specific way to be cared for. If you own one of these types of pets, it's best to find someone that is willing and capability of accepting this long term commitment.

Advanced Age/Chronic Illness

Although, science and technology are keeping us alive longer, we still age and with that process we may end up with a chronic illness. Both these conditions should be looked at as a reason to make plans for your pet.

Live Alone

Living alone could mean that if you were to suddenly pass, without a solid plan in place for your beloved pet, it could end up in the hands of a rescue group.

Your Pet Has a Chronic Illness or Special Needs

Some animals may develop chronic illnesses like diabetes or joint issues that will need to be dealt with properly moving into the future. Other pets may also be large or active, so they won't be able to be placed with someone in an apartment.

More Than One Pet

If you have a number of pets, one beneficiary may not be able to handle or even want to take on the responsibility of multiple animals. For this reason stating which animals need to stay together because they are bonded will help ensure their future.

Beneficiaries are NOT the Right Choice

Don't let your pet's future be left in the hands of a beneficiary that can take care of your precious jewelry, but is not the best choice for your priceless fur baby.

Do I Need Estate Planning For My Pets?

Estate Planning for Pets - A Legal Standpoint

Sadly, pets are considered property under most laws, so when you die, without the proper documents your pet could easily wind up in a shelter (or worse, abandoned on the street).

Although, you may think you have a verbal contract in place by a family member, friend or neighbor, people's circumstances may change from when those "promises" were first made. Allergies, the addition of children to a once single family, rental circumstances and their own health can all stop your pet from being properly cared for by the folks you thought were going to step up.

What if I will my pet to someone that is agreeable?

The misconception that wills can protect a living animal is a myth. Here's why:

  • Not Enforceable
    Even though the instructions in a will are written down, they are not enforceable. This means if you leave your house and cat to your sister, it doesn't mean she has to replace the shingles on the house or look after the cat the way you would.
  • Waiting Period
    All wills have a waiting period to clear through the process. Where are your pets going to end up in the meantime?
  • No Disbursement Clause
    In a will you cannot leave funds for the pet to be disbursed over time, it is simply one lump sum.
  • Court Has the Last Say
    Any changes in a will is left up to the court's discretion, this includes pets.
  • No Incapacity Clause
    If you were to become incapacitated, a will is not going to cover who looks after your pet while you are still alive, but unable to care for them.
  • Dependent on the "Honor" System
    Some states do not have a legally binding clause in a will for the pet, and any money left for it, to stay together. This simply put means, Suzy could take the dog and the money, dump the dog and spend the money on a vacation.

This may sound scary and a "waste of time" but it is still good to provide your wishes for your pet in your will, you just need to have a legally binding backup.

Pet Trusts

Since the will wasn't efficiently taking care of the long term care of pets after their owners had passed, there is now a document that provides more legally binding details.

Unlike a will, the Pet Trust adds a number of added benefits to assure your pet's welfare after you are gone. These include;

  • Valid in Life/Death
    This takes care of the incapacitation worry and protects your pet both in and after your life. It will also state that if you should become incapacitated or have to move to nursing home, the pet will go with you (if that is your wish).
  • Preempt Problems
    If there's a chance of a contest in the estate, the Pet Trust can help solve this issue. This is especially important if there is a substantial amount of money left for the pet and caretaker thereof.
  • Disbursement of Fund
    Pet Trusts takes care of the disbursement of the money left to your pet.
  • Investment Trustee
    For large estates, there can be an Investment Trustee appointed (outside of the family/caretaker) that will oversee the best investment of the money left to the pet with regards to growing the money, charitable donations etc.

How to Choose a Permanent Guardian for Your Pet

This may be the toughest part of estate planning for your pet; the permanent guardian. We probably all know people we wish could step in if we were to suddenly "go," but that's not always a possible choice.

When searching through your options it's important to select someone that knows you and your pet. This could be a friend, family member, close neighbor or even a work-related friend. The ultimate choice would be a person that has successfully pet parented animals in the past and is eager and willing to step in if needed. It is also recommended you find an alternate, just in case your first choice is no longer available to take on the task.

Now that you've found your (two) choices, make the process easier for your pet by;

  • Discussing your expectations of your pet's care with the potential guardians. This includes medical treatments, daily care, euthanasia etc.
  • Stay in touch with your pet's guardians to make sure they are still interested in taking your pet.
  • Always have a backup plan in place. Death or sickness never comes at a convenient time, so be sure you have temporary backups in place in case your two guardians are not readily available.
  • If you only have a will in place, be sure you trust your executor to give out the funds needed for the long term care of your pet(s).

These simple tips can save your pet from becoming the property of an animal shelter, or from someone you don't want to be their guardian.

What Else is Involved in Estate Planning for My Pet?

Once you have your guardian and backup guardian in place, there are a few more steps to take to ensure the welfare of your pet upon your demise.

Step # 1 - Compile Your Pet's Information

A person taking over someone else's pet can be stressful on both animal and guardian. Make it a bit easier by having all your pet's information in one place. This should include;

  • Vaccination records
  • Any medication it is on and how to administer it
  • Veterinarian information; name, address, telephone number
  • When it's next vet visit is due
  • Feeding schedule
  • Exercise and play habits
  • Any behavioral issues - physical, mental or emotional needs
  • Any quirks the animal may have that may not seem normal or is unknown to the guardian.

Another important issue is to always make a detailed description and identification of your pet. This includes microchipping or noting any unusual or distinguishing marks. Although, your pet's guardian may never dream of doing this, there have been reports of unscrupulous folks replacing the pet after its demise with one that is similar. This is easy to do if your cat or dog is all black or all white, so get detailed pictures of your pet to keep with the above information.

Step # 2 - Make the Documents Readily Accessible

There's no point having all your information compiled if no one can find it. Be sure to tell your pet's guardians, family members and executor of your will or pet trust where the documents are located in your home. If you have them in a security box in a bank, make sure the key is where your people of choice can find it.

Step # 3 - Providing Funds for Pet Care

We touched on this earlier, but sitting down and figuring out how much it takes to care for your pet on a monthly basis, is the first step to getting an idea of the amount of funds you will need to allocate to your pet's guardian. From there you will have to guesstimate the longevity of your pet and multiply it by that number. Depending on your financial ability, you may also want to add in a bit more in case of an unexpected illness or accident with your pet.

Step # 4 - Memorializing Wishes for Your Pet

Put in writing your intentions of how you want your pet memorialized. This could include detailed plans of when euthanization is appropriate, and whether you want the ashes scattered, placed with you or left to the discretion of the veterinary clinic.

Can I Request the Euthanization of My Pet Upon My Death?

The thoughts of leaving our beloved pets in someone else's care may be scary. For this reason some folks request that their pet be euthanized after their death. However, this is a tricky request. If the pet is young and in good health, some legal systems will rule this request invalid as there are other more humane resources available to the pet.

On the other hand, if the pet is old, sick and requires extensive healthcare it may be in its best interest to let the pet go. This is one of the reasons why choosing your pet's guardian very carefully is crucial to your fur baby. The responsibility of making this decision could be left up to them, so you will want that person to have your pet's best interest at heart.

Don't Leave Your Pet Unprotected

Even if you are young and healthy, it's always best to have plans in place when it comes to your pets. By following these tips and getting all the information together you need you can rest assured that your dog, cat, bird or reptile will be protected for the duration of its lifetime.

If you need assistance in estate planning for your pet, get in touch with an attorney that can help you with the legal documents concerning a pet trust or a will.

Don't leave your pet unprotected, have your final say in what you want for your precious fur baby after you are gone or can no longer care for it.

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