If you are like many pet owners, you have likely devoted a considerable amount of time and money to your beloved pet. Have you included your pet in your estate plan though? If you consider your pet to be part of the family, why wouldn’t you include him/her in your estate plan? Like many people, you may not have realized that pet planning was an option within your estate plan. Including it in your plan is the best way to ensure that your pet is well cared for if something happens to you.
Your pet is the one who could suffer if you fail to incorporate pet planning in your estate plan. The reality is that over half a million pets wind up in shelters each year because they are overlooked or abandoned after the death or incapacity of their owner. Your loved ones may be so focused on their worry or grief over your death or health problems that your pet simply gets lost. Even if they do remember your pet, they may be unwilling to take on the practical and financial responsibilities associated with caring for your pet. The best way to prevent such unwanted outcomes for your pet is to create a pet planning component within your comprehensive estate plan.
Knowing that a friend or family member has agreed to care for your pet if you are unable to do so yourself some day is comforting thought; however, there are several reasons why such a simple arrangement falls short of protecting your pet. First, your intended caregiver could be unable or unwilling to fulfill the agreement when the time comes and there is no legal way to enforce the agreement. Second, although you may not view your pet as your property, the law does, and a verbal agreement does not legally transfer ownership. Finally, the care and maintenance of your pet can be costly. A simple verbal agreement does not provide a way for you to arrange that funding – and you cannot expect your friend/family member to take on the financial burden.
Although you undoubtedly think of your pet as a member of the family, the law considers an animal to be property. Therefore, ownership of that “property” needs to be legally transferred to a new owner after your death. In the event of your incapacity, someone needs the legal authority to take control of that “property” during your incapacity. In addition, by making it clear who you wish to be your pet’s new “owner” you can help prevent disputes that could arise if more than one friend or family member wants to take over your pet’s care.
Given that the law considers your pet to be your property, you can gift him/her to someone in your Last Will and Testament. The problem with using your Will though is that gifting your pet in your Will does not legally obligate your caregiver to take over the care and maintenance of your pet nor does it provide a satisfactory funding method. You can also gift funds that are intended to be used to care for your pet; however, once gifted in a Will, the funds become the property of the beneficiary to do with as he/she pleases. In addition, gifting a pet in a Will does not address the possibility of your incapacity because the terms of a Will only become relevant upon your death.
The best way to protect your pet and ensure that he/she is provided for in your absence is through the creation of a pet trust. A pet trust is a specialized type of revocable living trust. Like any trust, you will appoint someone as the Trustee of the trust and you will fund the trust with sufficient assets to care for your pet in your absence. The Trustee of your trust is legally obligated to use the utmost care when managing the trust assets and to follow the trust terms just as you wrote them. Those terms can be used to dictate how you wish your pet to be care for in as much, or as little, detail as you wish. A pet trust provides the legal oversight you need to ensure that the funds you leave behind will be used exclusively for your pet and that your pet’s care will be continued in the manner to which your pet is accustomed. Finally, a pet trust can also address a situation wherein you are incapacitated. The Trustee can take over the care of your pet until you recover, or forever if your incapacity eventually leads to your death.
If you have questions relating to pet planning, contact the experienced estate planning attorneys at Nash Bean Ford & Brown, LLP by calling 309-944-2188 to schedule your free consultation.