Is your pet a member of the family or piece of property? For most people, the answer is: both. No matter your emotional connection, the law considers pets to be tangible personal property, like a car, jewelry, or furniture. That's one good reason to include your pets in your estate plan, lest they be left homeless or sent to a shelter if you die before they do.
As you develop a plan for your pet's care, be sure to consider these three key questions.
1. Who's in Charge?
Consider who would take care of your pet in the event that you die. Perhaps it’s your children, siblings, nieces or nephews, or maybe a close friend. Before making any decisions, you'll need to have a frank conversation -- not just to gauge their interest, but also to delve into whether they will actually be able to care for your pet, or whether they have any restrictions (housing, allergies, mobility) that might keep them from being as attentive as you'd like.
If you don’t have anyone in your life to care for your pet, you'll want to find a charitable organization that can help. The North Shore Animal League America, for example, has a Safe Haven Surviving Pet Care Program. Identify a local group now, and find out what it requires in return for finding your pet a good home. Organizations may need you to sign some sort of agreement in advance and leave a specific sum of money to pay for the cost of care.
2. How Much Money Should You Set Aside?
If you’re leaving your pets to an individual, you may want to give a lump sum to help pay for some costs associated with your pet's future care. To determine approximate costs, I recommend that my clients calculate their annual costs to care for the pet, and multiple that figure by the pet’s remaining life expectancy, plus add some extra for medical care as the pet ages.
Note that, if you’re contemplating leaving a larger amount -- to pay for much or all of your pet’s future needs, including not only food and vet visits, but also medication and grooming, plus any boarding, walking services, and other costs -- I recommend you create a trust to manage that money for your pet. That brings me to …
3. What Paperwork Do You Need?
Once you have both a plan and a budget for your pet's care, you have two ways to spell out your wishes in your estate plan: either within your will, or via a separate pet trust.
A will has the advantage of simplicity; including a pet in your will is usually relatively inexpensive. As with any other piece of property, you state in your will who you’ve chosen to inherit your pet upon your death -- but you can also leave that person funds to help defray some of the cost of the pet's care. Typically, the will would state that the person would only receive the money upon accepting responsibility for the pet. Your executor (known in some states as your "personal representative") will be responsible for securing the agreement and passing along the funds.
Use this approach only if you truly trust your chosen caregiver. Generally speaking, a will won't let you guarantee that the money will actually be used to care for the pet on an ongoing basis -- or even that the designated guardian won't give your pet away.
You can get more control, but with greater expense, with a pet trust, which lets you set aside money with specific rules as to how the money will be used. You'd name a trustee to manage the funds, and ensure that the money is used solely for the care of the pet.
I usually recommend that you name different people to be the trustee and the pet's caretaker. The trustee will be responsible for providing money to the caretaker, ensuring that the pet is cared for, and -- if necessary -- finding a new caretaker if any problems arise.
The downside of trusts, however, is the cost: You could pay up to thousands of dollars in attorney fees to set one up -- depending on where you live and the complexity of your situation -- and the trustee is entitled to compensation from the trust funds. You'll also want to decide what happens to any funds left in the trust when the pet dies; many people find it appropriate to donate the balance to an animal-related charity.
Ultimately, the decisions you make will depend on what works best for your family, your pet, and your financial situation. But you'll get more peace of mind knowing that you’ve secured some sort of care for your pet after you die -- which is better than having no plan in place at all.