Most pet owners consider their pet’s part of the family, but the laws in most jurisdictions consider pets as property and therefore, they have few legal rights. What can a pet owner who wants to provide for their pet do to make sure their beloved dog, cat, horse, llama or iguana is well taken care of in the event the owner is no longer able to care for them? There are a number of different answers to that question based on the type of animal and the laws in your local area.

Contrary to what many people believe, their pets may not be adequately cared for if they are only included in a will and not provided for in any other way. Wills are designed to disperse property after a person’s death and while pets are legally property, they are unique living property. Wills often fall short of the needs of our pets in many ways. Wills are not easily and universally enforceable. In most cases, they are not enacted immediately as there is always a waiting period before reading and implementation. Wills do not and cannot demand that “So and So feed and care for Animal X” in a certain way and time. Wills are easy to change at a judge’s discretion. Perhaps the easiest and most common step to take is to appoint a “pet guardian”, which is someone you select to adopt your animal in the event of your death or incapacitation and assign funds from your living trust to pay the “pet guardian” to care for the pet. It’s also important to assign a trustee to manage the money in the fund. Depending on your jurisdiction, the trustee can be, but doesn’t have to be, the same person who does the care giving. It’s important that your “pet trust” be a legally enforceable document in your area so, you will probably want to speak with a lawyer.

When determining how much money to set aside for the care of your pets after you are gone, you will need to factor in food, flea and tick care, veterinary services (including annual visits, vaccinations, oral care and grooming; emergency care) and other services and supplies. The exact amount of money it takes to care for an animal per year varies depending on the species, age, health and overall conditions in which the animal lives. A good way to determine this number is to average the total cost to care for your pet across 12 months multiplied by the anticipated number of years each pet will survive you. Remember to factor in a 5 to 10% annual increase because the costs of caring for an elderly pet are higher than for a young pet. General estimates average between US $50-100 per month to care for a healthy young adult cat up to many hundreds, perhaps even thousands of dollars, for an old and infirm horse or other large animal. For some pet caregivers, while they may have the best of intentions to care for your pet, financial constraints may prevent them from doing so. As such, having enough money set aside for the care of your pets will help ensure minimal financial pressures for your pet’s caregiver.

Make sure that both the trustee who will administer the funds and the person you have care for your pets consent to do what you ask and that you provide them with enough information on what the animal needs and how to provide it. It is a good idea to have both a verbal conversation with the trustee and caregiver as well as leave explicit written instructions.
Information to include when estate planning for the care of your pets:

  • Spell out in detail how you want the money you set aside for the care of your pet to be used (how much money for toys, grooming, emergency vet visits, etc.).
  • Provide complete medical records (including allergy and vaccination information) as well as records of surgeries (including spay/neuter) and pregnancies.
  • Preferred foods, bowls, toys and bedding.
  • Daily schedule of activities including feeding, walking, toileting, medications and supplements (and how given). Maybe every Tuesday you take your dog to a specific dog park and want the caregiver to continue the practice, include this in your instructions.
  • If your pet has any particular behavioral issues such as fear of loud noises, separation anxiety or is an escape artist, you will want to provide as much information as possible to ease your pet’s transition to their new home.
  • Remember to leave specific instructions or plans for the burial (or disposal) of your pet upon their death.

To make sure you provided your pet’s future caregiver with all the information necessary, keep a diary of your daily activities including all of your interactions with your pets. Compile receipts for all purchases associated with your pets. Consider having another family member or friend familiar with your pet review your lists to make sure you didn’t leave anything out.

Something often overlooked and worthy of separate mention here is what about multiple pet households? If Spike and Fluffy can’t stand to be separated or maybe Diesel the Pomeranian and Fang the Chihuahua need to be kept apart, mayhem might ensue if you don’t spell it out.

Another financial aspect to consider is what happens to the money left over when the pet dies. One option is to assign a “remainder beneficiary”. Most people choose one of their other beneficiaries or an animal charity to receive any remaining funds upon the death (and payment of any outstanding bills) of the pet. It’s important to determine a beneficiary or, the decision may be left to a judge.

Every pet owner who wants to take care of their pet worries about what might happen to the animal in the event of their death or incapacitation. Hopefully, after reading this article you will see that with a little planning and foresight, no matter what happens, you can be sure that your most precious possession is well cared for always. For general information on estate planning for your pet by state, visit the American Humane Association atwww.americanhumane.org/assets/docs/protecting-animals/PA-laws-pet-trusts.pdf.

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