What happens if you die before your cat or dog? It’s a question being addressed increasingly as more people are including pets in their estate planning.
Pets are property
In the eyes of the law pets are property. But ask any pet guardian – otherwise known as a pet owner – if Fido or Fluffy is on equal footing with their other possessions and most will say ‘no.’ Increasingly, dogs, cats and other companion animals are the subject of bitter custody fights when couples divorce, and are gaining the upper paw when it comes to estate planning.
While the law classifies pets as property, it does recognize that they’re qualitatively different than, say, a sofa or nightstand or the ’69 Camaro you painstakingly restored. In fact, it’s a crime in all 50 states to abandon an animal, an issue brought into sharp and painful relief during the ongoing home foreclosure crisis. Many animals die when once-responsible owners feel they have no choice but to abandon their pets, falsely assuming that someone from the bank will quickly come to their animals’ rescue. Rarely is this the case and a once-beloved family member is literally left to die.
Excluding pets abandoned by their owners, it’s estimated that 400,000 pets each year become homeless when their owners die. Without a plan for their ongoing care most will end up in shelters, where the statistics are not in their favor – especially if they are older, disabled or have other special needs. At Pets for Patriots, we’re proud that our program focuses on the needs of adult and other at-risk dogs and cats; many veterans in our program end up adopting an animal surrendered by a family or individual in financial distress.
Types of pet trusts
It’s important to have a written, legal document detailing your specific wishes regarding your pet’s care.
All states honor traditional trusts, which require you to choose a trustee who will pay your designated beneficiary as long as he or she cares for your pet. A simpler plan, known as a statutory trust, follows your state’s laws in how the pet trust is executed. Currently, such trusts are authorized in 46 states and the District of Columbia.
Either type of trust can be a living trust, which is immediately effective and in force while you are alive, or a testamentary trust that is in effect after you die. Although the living trust can cost up to several thousand dollars to set up, it offers more protection if you are disabled, hospitalized or otherwise unable to care for your pet for an extended period of time.
As with any legal matter, consult an attorney to determine the type of trust that best suits your needs.
Planning for the unexpected
Your demise isn’t the only reason to have a pet care plan. Imagine you are hospitalized, become incapacitated or disabled, or separated from your pet due to a natural or other disaster. Who will take care of your pet and how will they know what to do, for example: how to contact your veterinarian, whether your pet is taking medication or requires other vital treatment, like a special diet? These are just a few of the many issues that need to be addressed in any pet care plan. Equally important is what you don’t want to happen to your pet, e.g., do not place in a family with small children or in a multi-pet household.
The Humane Society of the United States provides a free information guide on the essentials of a good pet plan. Additional tips on how to include animals in your will is available from the Animal Legal Defense Fund as well as the American Bar Association.
Choosing a pet guardian
Perhaps the most important decision you can make is choosing who will take care of your pet if you’re unable to do so as a result of injury, disability or even death. This is the person who will interact every day with your dog or cat, and should be someone who is familiar with your pet, able and willing to care for it, and who can be trusted to execute your wishes concerning your pet’s care. If no one is available to undertake this responsibility contact area rescues, sanctuaries or animal welfare organizations to ask about arrangements for them to serve as your pet’s guardian.
Most important, don’t leave your pet’s guardian to chance or assume that someone in your family will be the best choice for this critical role. Animals grieve; your pet will be distressed by your absence and deserves to be cared for by someone who is truly up to the task.
How are you planning for your pet’s future care?