No one can argue that our pets are a part of our family and in some cases, those pets are the only family. Have you thought about what happens to your pets if you are incapacitated or if you die? Do you have a plan for your animal family?
What happens without a plan?
If you don’t make arrangements for Fluffy in your estate plan, who will get your pet depends on what other arrangements you’ve made, or not made. If you have made a will, your pet will go to your residuary beneficiary – that is, the person you’ve name to get the remainder of your estate after any specific gifts. If there isn’t a will, Fluffy, along with the rest of your property, will be distributed according to the laws of your state, through intestate succession. If that person decides that they don’t want to, or can’t, take care of Fluffy, Fluffy will likely be taken to the local animal shelter and may, or may not, be adopted.
There are better options.
Pets cannot own property, so you can’t name Fluffy as the sole heir in your will, but you can plan to make sure that Fluffy has a good life after you die by planning your estate to include her. That estate plan makes sure that Fluffy goes to a caring person or organization of your choice and that the new caretaker has the resources to take good care of her.
There are a range of options to take care of Fluffy – from creating simple, non-legal arrangements, to making a complex trust for Fluffy, to leaving her with an organization dedicated to taking care of pets after an owner’s death.
The first step is the same no matter which planning tool you decide to use – you have to find a person or organization that you trust to care for Fluffy after you are gone and that person or organization needs to be aware and willing, don’t surprise them. This requires a candid conversation with Fluffy’s potential caretaker about how to care for your pet and how expenses will be met.
What happens if you put Fluffy’s caregiver in your will? How about an example.
Jeff was diagnosed with a terminal condition and he’s concerned about what will happen to his two-year old black lab, Bear, when he passes. Jeff spoke to his sister, Jennifer, about taking Bear after his death. Jennifer knows and loves Bear and would like to take him, but she is on a very tight budget and is not sure how she’ll pay for Bear’s food, vet bills, and occasional boarding. Jeff decides to use his will to leave Bear to Jennifer and also leaves Jennifer money for Bear’s care.
What happens after Jeff dies? Bear will legally belong to Jennifer, but Jennifer will have no legal obligation to use the money, which she will get in a lump sum, from the will on Bear. If she goes shopping for clothes with the money, there would be no legal recourse. Jennifer could also decide not to take Bear.
It is good idea to have a conversation with an alternate caretaker, in case your first choice cannot do the job and once they agree, include them in the will. Jeff ultimately decided to use the following bequest in his will: “I give my dog, Bear, a black Labrador to Jennifer Smith, presently residing at [address], with the request that she treat him as a companion animal. If she is unable or unwilling to accept Bear, I give Bear to Jack Smith, presently residing at [address] with the request that he treat his as a companion animal. If he is unable or unwilling to accept Bear, my Executor shall select an appropriate person to accept Bear and treat him as a companion animal, and I give Bear to such person.
I direct my Executor to give $1,000,00 from my estate to the person who accepts Bear, and I request that these funds be used for the care of Bear.”
What about a Trust?
A trust is a stronger, but more complicated and more expensive legal option is to make a pet trust. The Trust allows you to leave Fluffy, money with a legal obligation to care of her. If the caretaker fails to follow your instructions, he or she can be sued. In your trust document, you need to (1) State pets are covered; (2) Name a caretaker; (3) Leave an amount of money to be used for pet care; (4) Describe how the pet should be cared for; (5) Name a person to go to court and enforce the terms of the trust if necessary; (6) State what should be done with any money that’s left over when the animal dies; (7) Describe how your pet should be cared for if you can’t take care of him or her before your death.
There are definite advantages to using a pet trust. Pet trusts create a legal obligation to care for your pet, which you choose, they provide accountability for the money that you leave to the caretaker and they allow you to set up a caretaking plan that will take effect if you become incapacitated.
What about Legacy arrangements?
If you can’t find a person both willing and able to take care of Fluffy after you die, you’re not without options. Programs exist across the country that allow you to leave your pet to a trustworthy caretaker after you die. Those organizations vary from location and require specific research.
What about non-legal arrangements?
If you fully trust your executor and the person who will care for Fluffy, and you are confident that no one else will claim ownership of Fluffy, you could tell your executor who should care for Fluffy when you die. If there is any possibility of disagreement about who should own Fluffy after you die, it is a better idea to make a legal arrangement in your will or through a pet trust.
Planning for your family is important – we can help you prepare. Contact us at (800) 303-1386 or by email at Erin@Zebell-Law.com to see how we can help you.