Estate Planning for Pets

By: Christina Bush, CES, CAS, CMFC

Wealth Manager/Certified Estate & Trust Specialist

Domestic pets are enormous parts of our lives and families and they need to be taken care of in our estate plans, just as our other family members do.  Not only are our pets great family companions, but they also can prolong a person’s life.  Many people intuitively believe that they and others derive health benefits from relationships with their animal friends.  A variety of scientific studies performed over the past 25 years also support this belief. Among other benefits, animals have been shown to demonstrate improvement in human cardio-vascular health, reduce stress, decrease loneliness and depression, and facilitate social interactions among people who choose to have pets.  

In many instances, human health professionals can contribute to the welfare of their patients by encouraging them to maintain bonds with their pets, especially in the face of serious illnesses and other challenges.   Enhanced hormone levels of dopamine and endorphins associated with happiness and well-being are shown to occur following a quiet 30-minute session of interacting with a dog.  Petting a dog or cat and watching fish in an aquarium is proven to reduce heart rate.  The animals in our lives do wonderful things for us and, in return, it is important that we remember them and their well-being in our estate plans.  

According to the Humane Society of the United States, more than 500,000 pets are euthanized in United States animal shelters each year because of the death or disability of the owner.  Sometimes they are condemned to a life without love or imprisonment due to situations their owners did now know or because no arrangements were made for them.  Many people procrastinate or do not even consider what would happen to their pets in the event of their demise.  This topic, however morbid, is a very serious one that needs to be addressed.  Only legally enforceable written documents can guarantee a pet’s secure and comfortable future.   It is imperative to make sure the needs for continued care of your beloved pet do not go unmet.

Pet protection agreements are documents established for companion animals when their owners are unable to care for them.  This agreement can be completed with or without the help of an attorney and is valid during your lifetime as well as after your death.  Any trusted advisor (such as an investment advisor, accountant, trustee, or paralegal) can help you complete this document.  Instructions regarding the care for your pet should be as clear and detailed as instructions a parent would leave for a child.   This makes the transition between pet owner and guardian as smooth as possible and will help to reduce the stress put on your pet.  

You can leave your pet to a relative or close friend, along with funds to provide for their care.  An attorney can help draft the language in your will or trust so that the gift will be valid.   This person may not want to take care of your pet so it is imperative that you ask for their consent before naming them in a legal document.  A pet trust prevents your pet from falling through the cracks.  The trust may nominate a suitable guardian guardian and home for the animal, how medical expenses and pet care will be managed, and how other pet duties and to be handled in your absence.  Prepare a budget based on what you currently spend.  Increase that amount for inflation and build in a cushion for increased medical expenses in your pet’s final years.   This is how much should be left behind for the remaining lifetime care of your pet.  

The guardian can be a person or an organization and will keep the pets and must carry out the owner’s wishes and instructions.  If an organization is chosen for this role, you should include directions with regards to adoptions.   Ideally there should always be a successor guardian named as well in case your first choice is unable or unwilling to accept the responsibility.   Usually shelters and sanctuaries require a fee, so this must be factored into the consideration of how much money you need to leave. Once your friend takes legal ownership of your pet there is no guarantee that they will fulfill your desires.  Conflicts with other pets, allergies, pet exclusions from rental apartments, and informal promises made by friends and family members often fail.  A regular accounting of expenses can be required by your trust.

The pet guardian should be allowed to exercise some discretion when facing new or unforeseen circumstances. If you have multiple pets and your wish is for them to be kept together, this should be made very clear in your estate planning document because it will not happen automatically.  The ability to keep pets together can also have a significant impact on the choice of pet guardians.  Identifying each pet in great detail is especially critical in preventing a pet guardian from confusing animals or replacing the original pet in order to illegally extend benefits for financial distributions.  

The Humane Society says that all too often, people erroneously assume that long-ago verbal promises from family members, friends or neighbors to provide a home for their pets will be sufficient years later.  But, in so many cases this does not work out for the benefit of the animal.  Protect your pets today by providing for their futures and do not fail to make adequate provisions for them which may leave them homeless and forgotten.