The law sees pets as property. For now. However, even in the eyes of the law, pets are more than just an extension of your material wealth. Animal law tries to fight for the welfare of animals, criminalizing cruelty, neglect and torturous treatment of animals.
But that doesn’t change that, fundamentally, the law still sees pets as property. Your property, to be exact. Which means that when you die, the property rights to your pet become part of your estate, and that estate will transfer to whomever you or the probate court deem best suited for inheritance, according to local state laws.
In other words: if you don’t include your pets in your estate plan, then there’s no way to be sure what will happen to them. Thankfully, there are plenty of ways to include your pets in your estate plan, and ensure that they’re well taken care of after your passing.
As much as we might love them like any other member of our family, pets aren’t human – and they think in a different way. Dogs, for example, are extremely loyal – to their own detriment. The death of a leader in their eyes can leave them depressed and despondent – and without a thorough backup plan to help your pets readjust and be with a loving family again, it may just be an experience traumatic enough to end their lives as they know it.
Most people don’t think much about what might happen after they die, until it’s too late. While some people have the luxury of living long enough to ponder about leaving something behind for their loved ones, many simply go on one day without ever having expected to leave this green earth behind so soon. It’s in cases like that when proper estate planning truly becomes important. Wills, trusts, and contingency plans aren’t just for senior citizens – they’re for anyone who has anything to lose. And if you’ve got your pets to lose, then your pets have you to lose – and taking care of them if you pass on (however unlikely it may be now) is important.
While it’s still extremely rare for Americans to create a plan for their pets after their passing, there are resources and tools with the capability to help you arrange for the care of your pet after you’re gone.
Think on how important your pet is to your family – and not just you. Many simply assume that if they pass on, their family will take care of their pet. But that assumption shouldn’t simply be made lightly. It’s important to sit down and have a talk with your family, and see if they want to keep the pet if you die. Often enough, families simply give the pet up to a shelter. This can be an extremely traumatic experience for dogs, which have a hard time dealing with entirely new environments, especially after the loss of their master and best friend.
People too often simply assume they’ll outlive their pets – but too often, this isn’t the case. Thankfully, it’s relatively easy and inexpensive to provide a plan for your pet to be in good hands after you pass on. Here are a few ways in which you can see to it that, no matter what, your pet will be with a loving family:
Pet trusts are simple. You, as grantor, create a document assigning a specific individual and amount of money in trust for the benefit of your pet after your passing. A trustee is assigned to handle the cash, and a caregiver is assigned, to be paid a specific amount on a regular basis for an amount of time that varies from state to state (usually, it’s until the pet’s death or 21 years, whichever comes first).
A pet trust is a foolproof, legally-binding way to ensure that your pet will have people who look after it, and resources to its name. Pet trusts are often more advantageous to pets with longer lifespans, such as horses.
A will is another option for ensuring that your pet will be in the hands of the right person. In fact, pet trusts can be created through your will – in most states, it’s an option for you to use your will to not only specify the next owner of your pet in the case of your death, but you can also leave a certain sum to the care of your pet.
Unlike a pet trust, however, that’s where it ends. A trust can be used to carefully describe how the pet should be cared for, and the money given to the caretaker must be used to obligatorily take care of the pet until their passing, or for a certain number of years. A will, on the other hand, simply lets you formally pass your pet onto a specific friend or family member, optionally with a sum of money to help them deal with the financial aspect of caring for your pet.
Sometimes, an estate plan doesn’t necessarily have to be a legally-binding document. Sometimes, all it takes is a verbal agreement with a person you trust deeply, and a little booklet of information regarding pet care, likes and dislikes, and a detailed account of your pet’s personality.
Informal arrangements such as personally talking to a trusted friend or family member and entrusting the life of your pet to them in the case of your passing can be enough, so long as you can be sure that they’ll take care of your pet. From there, all you need to do is write them into your will.
Remember that the only thing a will is good for is to enforce property rights – meaning, it’s not the place to write down detailed instructions on how to care for your property. If you give your sister a house and tell her not to paint it, she’s under no obligation to follow that instruction.
Therefore, it makes more sense to go beyond your will to establish expectations. You can even go so far as to talk to your friend about how you would handle end-of-life care. A good idea for choosing a person to trust in regarding pet care is by giving them your pet for a short period of time, or watching them spend time with your pet to see if the two are a good match to begin with.
At the end of the day, the goal here is to provide your pet with a future without you – one with as little suffering as possible. Shelter living conditions can be harsh, whereas the home and hearth of a caring friend can give your pet many more years of joy and comfort.
Founded in 1975 by L. Rob Werner and serving California for over 48 years, our dedicated attorneys are available for clients, friends, and family members to receive the legal help they need and deserve. You can trust in our experience and reputation to help navigate you through your unique legal matters.
Whether you need help creating a living trust or navigating probate, our living trust law firm's compassionate team of estate planning lawyers and probate lawyers are here to help you and ready to answer your questions.
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