Estate Planning for Pets: How to Protect Your Furry Friends

·6 min read
A woman sits on her front porch with her dog.
A woman sits on her front porch with her dog. Getty Images

Planning for your four-legged loved ones (better known as your children who wear fur coats) can be just as challenging as planning for your two-legged loved ones. As a specialist in wills, trusts and estates, and an animal lover myself, I’ve helped many people craft plans to protect their pets over the years.

For instance, I helped a man with five cats ensure they were able to stay together and live out their lives in a senior cat sanctuary. I also had the pleasure of helping a lady create a pet trust so her cats, dogs and horses can stay in their own home after she dies. A qualified caregiver will move into her home and live on her farm with her pets, so they never have to find a new place to live.

Each case is as different as the animals in our lives, but when planning ahead for your pets, everyone needs to start by considering the following questions:

  • Do any of your pets have unique care requirements (i.e., health concerns, unusual behaviors, etc.) that require special planning?

  • Where do you want your pets to live — at your home, with a friend or loved one, or at a sanctuary?

  • What financial resources will you provide to ensure your pets are adequately provided for?

  • Who will be responsible for providing daily care?

  • Who will be responsible for the oversight and administration of the assets left for the benefit of your pets?

No two pet owners will have the same planning goals for their pets. You may say, “I want my pets to stay in my home, in familiar surroundings, with a pet caregiver who will move in and live on the premises.” Or you may be comfortable with a new forever family or a sanctuary environment for your pets (particularly horses or other hard-to-place pets). These are just a few of the options that must be considered when creating a plan to ensure your pets will be properly cared for when you are unable to do so yourself, either through natural disaster, disability or death.

First, Decide Who Will Care for Your Pet

The first step in planning for your pets goes beyond the legal design of a pet estate plan. The first step is to identify those persons or organizations (pet caregivers) that will have physical custody of your pets and will provide them with daily care through their lifetime. Much like planning for minor children, before any of the financial considerations are addressed, you have to feel comfortable with the selection of your caregiver. For some, finding the right pet caregiver can be a challenge.

You may consider family or friends, but you should never assume they will be willing to provide lifetime care for your pets. You need to have a specific conversation to confirm their willingness to take on this responsibility. What do you do if you don’t have anyone who is suitable for this important role? In that case, you could consider a pet sanctuary or perpetual care organization.

Without a specific plan for your pets, your pet may become a sad statistic. It is estimated more than 500,000 loved pets are euthanized annually because their pet parent died or became disabled.

Next, Figure Out the Finances

You will also want to consider how much money to leave for the lifetime care of your pets. If your pets are staying in your home, then you’ll have the added expense of maintaining the property and the home. In all cases, you’ll want to consider compensation for your caregiver and provide sufficient resources for the lifetime care costs of your pets.

How much money is enough? Only you can answer that question. First, consider how much you spend to care for your pets now. Then, assume your pets will live for an extraordinary amount of time. Do the math and then add a little more to provide a cushion in the event your pet has a ca

tastrophic illness. Life insurance and retirement plans can be ideal assets for providing for your pets’ lifetime care.

There are lots of choices when planning for pets. Some pet parents choose to leave a fixed sum of money and their pet to a trusted pet caregiver. This choice has the greatest risk as there is no way to ensure the funds are used for the proper care of the pet. Or you may want more certainty and elect to create a Pet Trust for the lifetime care of your pets. Pet Trusts can be included in your Last Will, as part of a Revocable Living Trust or as a separate stand-alone Pet Trust. There are pros and cons for each choice.

Finally, Pick a Trustee

If you create a Pet Trust, selecting a trustee to manage the money for your pets will also be a crucial part of your plan. Your trustee will have the responsibility of making sure your wishes regarding the care of your pets and the distribution of your money are followed. The trustee can be the same person as the pet caregiver, but this is not always recommended because it can create a potential conflict of interest. The best choice is a professional trustee, such as a certified public accountant, attorney, trust company or charity qualified to act as trustee.

Animal Care Trust USA, a non-profit organization I founded in 2018, is the nation’s first charity dedicated to educating pet parents about the importance of pet trusts, providing pet trust options and re-homing services and serving as trustee for Pet Trusts. Pet parents can choose from our ACT4Pets Community Pet Trust, the Forever Loved Pet Trust or create a custom pet trust using their attorney or one of ours. You can get more information at ACT4Pets.org.

Planning for your pets is an important part of your comprehensive estate plan. Your pets can’t take care of themselves, and they rely on you for everything. Be sure to give careful consideration to the needs of your pets as you think about the best way to provide for their lifetime care.

On a mission to plan and protect your pet? Read my book, All My Children Wear Fur Coats – How to Leave a Legacy for Your Pet, it addresses the need for planning for pets as well as providing checklists and other useful information for creating lasting pet legacies. You can order a copy from Amazon.

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