Taking Care of Your Four-Legged Friends After You're Gone - Estate Planning for Pets
If you’re like most pet owners, pets are more than just property. They are members of your family. They give you boundless love and affection without asking for anything in return (except for perhaps a belly rub or tasty treat now and again). So what happens to them when you pass away? Who will care for them, and where will the money for their care come from?
The good news is that there are a range of options when planning for the continued care of your pets after you’re gone. Your plan can be as simple as making a small bequest under your Will or as complex as creating a pet trust that specifies in detail how your pet should be cared for. Which option you choose may depend on who you have chosen to be the caregiver for your pet and on the amount of money you intend to leave for your pet’s care.
Choosing a Caregiver
The first step in providing for your pet in your estate plan is to choose a caregiver. Will you choose your spouse? Your children? A close friend? Consider those people who have a good relationship with your pet and would be able to assume the role as their primary caregiver. Once you have settled on a person, approach them to confirm whether or not this is a responsibility they would be willing to take on. While notifying your chosen caregiver that you would like to appoint them to serve in this role is not required, it is highly recommended. There is nothing that can throw a bigger monkey wrench in your plans than your caregiver declining to take in your pet after your death.
If you do not have a specific individual in mind, there are numerous charitable organizations that can help. Do some research to discover the organizations that are located in your area, and find out what they need in order to finalize any arrangements. Some such organizations may require a minimum donation amount or that you sign a formal contract, so make sure you are aware of all the details before settling on an organization.
How Much Money Should I Leave For My Pet’s Care?
Once a caregiver has been chosen, the next step is to determine how much money you want (or are able) to leave behind for your pet’s care. First, take stock of your financial situation and determine what funds may be available after your death for this purpose. Second, try and estimate the actual amount of expenses that may be incurred in caring for your pet. In making this decision, consider how much longer the pet is likely to live (are you being survived by a 1 year old cat or a 12 year old dog?) and any current or anticipated health issues. A good starting point is this chart from aspca.org.
- Small Bequest: If, after taking all these factors into account, you have decided you will only be leaving a small amount of money for your pet, you may not need the complexity of a trust. A simpler option may be to provide instructions under your Will that the money be given to your pet’s caregiver in one lump sum, and provide general instructions as to how you would like the funds to be used (ex. routine vet exams, grooming, food, shelter, etc.).
- Large Bequest: Conversely, if you will be leaving a larger amount of money for your pet, a pet trust could be a more appealing option. One of the benefits of opting for the pet trust is that you are putting more protections in place to ensure that your caretaker is caring for your pet in accordance with your instructions. For example, in the option outlined in the paragraph above (simply leaving a lump sum to the caretaker) you are trusting your caretaker to use the money you have left them to provide for your pet. There is really no oversight, however, to ensure that the caretaker acts as you have instructed.
With the pet trust, you are creating a clear legal obligation for the caretaker to care for your pet. In addition, you have the option to choose different individuals to serve different functions. You can appoint a trustee to manage the money left in trust and appoint someone else to be your pet’s day-to-day caregiver. All of the actions of both the trustee and the caregiver will be monitored by a “trust protector,” whose sole duty is to act on behalf of your pet. If the caregiver or trustee acts in a way that is inappropriate, the trust protector will have the right to seek legal action to remove or replace the caregiver or trustee.
If you choose to go with a pet trust, you may need to again revisit the question of how much you are leaving behind for your pet’s care. This is due to the fact that there are specific laws in Connecticut that govern the administration of pet trusts. One of these laws specifically states that a court can order the trustee to distribute a portion of the funds left in the pet trust to other beneficiaries if a court determines that the value of the trust exceeds the amount that is actually needed for your pet’s care. For example, when the famous “Queen of Mean” Leona Helmsley died in 2007, she left $12 million in trust for the care of her pet dog. This sum was subsequently reduced to $2 million as the courts deemed the original amount to be excessive. While most people do not have millions to leave behind for their pets, you must still be mindful of choosing an amount that is not going to be deemed excessive.
Regardless of whether you opt for a simple bequest or a complex pet trust, the important thing is that you put a plan in place. This will relieve the burden on your loved ones to try and figure out what you would have wanted and ensure that your pet receives the care they deserve.