Your pet may be your best friend, but in the eyes of the law, it’s your property. To ensure your pets are properly cared for if they outlive you, you must include them in your estate planning using legally enforceable documents. If you rely only on the goodwill of others, circumstance might change and adversely affect your pet.
A Trio of Legal Documents for Pet Protection
There are a trio of documents to consider in your estate planning for pets:
A Will: The will describes how property is to be distributed after your death. However, wills cannot enforce behavior. For example, if you leave Fluffy to your nephew, your will won’t compel him to take care of Fluffy. Also, wills may require a lengthy probate process – what happens to your pet in the interim? Finally, wills can’t disburse money for the pet’s care over its lifetime, just as a lump sum. Therefore, a will, while necessary, is not sufficient.
Pet Trust: This is the instrument that provides many protections for your pet:
They are valid if you become incapacitated, which means your pet can accompany you to a nursing home or Alzheimer’s unit
They preempt problems with a contested estate
They control fund disbursement
They provide for a trustee protector (who may separate from the pet guardian) that can invest your bequest so that there is always enough money to care for your pets.
Pet Protection Agreement: The PPA is a lite version of a pet trust that provides many of the same protections while avoiding the heavy legal bills. You can fill it out yourself or with a trusted advisor, such as your veterinarian or lawyer. The biggest drawback is that it can’t ensure that Fluffy will accompany you to the nursing home.
Estate Planning for Pet Owners
Whichever documents you choose, you still have to address certain basic elements in your estate planning for your pets:
The pet owner should clearly designate the pet’s guardian and make sure copies of all legal documents are in the hands of your lawyer, veterinarian, groomer, walker etc. If you have two sibling pets that look alike, make sure you describe how to tell them apart, especially if you plan for them to split up after your death.
The pet guardian might be a person or an organization. The job of the guardian is to take care of the pet according to your instructions. If an organization is the guardian, specify any requirements you have about the pet eventually being adopted. If you leave your pet to an animal care organization, it’s a great opportunity to make a charitable bequest, either at your death or currently – it helps the animals and provides you with a tax break.
Name a successor guardian in case the primary one can’t or won’t assume responsibility for your pet, or if the pet outlives the primary guardian. Make sure that the primary and successor guardians have copies of your instructions and all important documents.
Specify enough funds to take care of your pet for its expected lifetime, and to provide for emergency funds. Make sure you leave ample amounts for food, shelter, grooming, walking and medical care. If your pet is young, you can buy pet insurance that will help pay for its medical care as it ages, with or without you. Some insurance companies won’t insure older pets, so get insurance when they are still young.
Name a remainder beneficiary who inherits any money left over after your pet passes away.
If you have strong beliefs about your pet’s care, be sure to document it in your agreement or trust document. This can include keeping multiple pets together, as well as instructions for the care of your pets’ offspring.
Pet counseling may be required for pets that are especially close to you. Pets, especially dogs and birds, can go through a grieving process. A pet counselor is trained to help the bird recover from the shock of your loss.
Death is tragic enough. You don’t want to compound the tragedy by leaving your pet in limbo or having a court decide what to do with it. Sure, it’s tough to think about leaving your pets behind, but taking steps now will alleviate your worries when your time comes. Remember, your veterinarian is your trusted partner in your pet’s care – it’s wise to discuss your plans with your vet and benefit from his or her experience, especially when it comes to leaving adequate funding for your pet.
Dr. Paul has a strong interest in avian and exotic animal medicine and surgery, as well as small animal internal medicine and surgery.
He has provided services for numerous breeders, kennels, aviaries, and mini zoos.