How to Build an Estate Plan for Your Pet

The domestication of other animals is one of the distinguishing characteristics of the modern human species, and rather than simply exploit other animals, we’ve been forging bonds and friendships with animals for countless lifetimes. To many, pets are every bit as much a family member as a sibling or cousin, and they deserve to be taken care of as best as possible. Yet how can you ensure that your pet is well-loved and taken care of after you’re gone? Living day after day is something we take for granted, and very few among us would ever think to consider that our pets would outlive us.

But it happens – more often than you would think. It’s unclear if pets grieve, and it certainly differs from pet to pet, but just as millions of Americans pass away every year, countless leave behind pets that they assumed their family would take care of, only to never find out that their pets get sent to shelters or have to go hungry out on the street instead. An estimated 3.3 million dogs enter US animal shelters every year, most of them picked up on the streets, many left out to wander in the cold after their owners have abandoned them.

It’s a problem with no easy solution in sight, and it’s a scenario we never want to have to imagine for our beloved pets. If you can’t count on friends or family to care for your pet after you’re gone, it’s a good idea to ensure that there’s a contingency plan in place. You can include your pet in your estate planning and see to it that they have the legal and financial support necessary to see them through the rest of their life long after you’re gone.

Exploring Your Options

When it comes to making sure that your furry or scaly friend is represented in your estate plan, your options are limited in number, but comprehensive in scope. You can write your pet into your will or set up a special pet trust for your pet. Both options are best explored with the help of a professional estate planner. Do not choose online templates when creating a will or trust – as tempting as it might be to save yourself the trouble of going to a professional, you’re much better off getting it done right than risking an invalid estate planning document when push comes to shove and you’re no longer there to care for your pet.

Setting Up a Pet Trust

A pet trust is quite similar to any other trust, insofar that it is an agreement between two parties for the benefit of a third party, with a document that is signed and notarized. In the case of a pet trust, you’re setting aside a portion of your estate plan “in trust” with a trustee, so said trust can be used to take care of your pet financially after you’re gone. Almost every state and district in the United States has laws regarding the use of pet trusts. In California, for example, your options are:

    • You can set up a pet trust with a designated trustee, who is then legally tasked with ensuring that the contents of the trust are used for the pet’s care. A pet trust lasts as long as the pet is alive, and any funds left in the trust after their passing can be assigned to another beneficiary.
    • You can also set up a pet trust to take care of your pet right now, with yourself as trustee, and with a successor trustee named in the associated trust document to take over after you’re gone.

All forms of pet trust documents can be used to leave very specific care instructions for your pet. This includes what kind of blanket or toy they like, and what kind of exercise or diet they need. Expenses that a pet trust is expected to cover include:

    • Feeding costs.
    • Grooming costs.
    • Emergency veterinary care costs.
    • Routine veterinary care costs.
    • Boarding costs.

If the trust is testamentary (meaning, it kicks in after you pass away), said trust will either rely on a set amount or pull from your estate plan until your pet passes away. If you create a statutory trust and manage it immediately, you may manually fund the trust.

Including Your Pet in Your Estate Plan or Will

Your other, simpler, albeit less legally-binding option is to include your pet in a will. The thing about pets is that no matter how intelligent they are, they are not legally allowed to hold property. You can’t leave your pet a sum of cash – and as with a pet trust, you need another human being to handle the finances and logistics associated with taking care of your pet when you’re gone. While animals are “becoming people” in a social context, they cannot own anything.

What you can do is leave a sum of money to a relative with instructions to take care of your pet. You cannot, however, leave detailed care instructions as you may in a pet trust. These requests are also not enforceable, meaning that if you allocate a portion of your estate plan to a cousin and ask them to take care of your dog, they can choose to ignore the request, spend the money any which way they please, and send your dog to a shelter. Because of that, it’s important to vet the person you’re charging with taking care of your pet.

Choosing the Right Caretaker

Your best option is to set up a pet trust and choose a trustee you can have faith in. Through a pet trust, a trustee is legally compelled to take care of your pet as per the parameters of the trust, so choose a trustee who would be happy to take care of your pet for you once you’ve passed away. You may choose a caretaker and trustee separately. If you have someone in mind as caretaker but are not sure how they would fare being in charge of the financial details of the trust, simply choose two different individuals.

Skip to content