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Estate Planning for your Pets
Revised: September 13, 2017
Published: May 23, 2004

Photo by VIN.

It’s a sobering thought, but do you know who will take care of your pets if you should die? Many people assume that family members will keep their pets, but shelter volunteers see numerous pets surrendered because of the owner’s death. If plans aren’t carefully made, your pets may not be where you’d hoped. Whether your death turns out to be unexpected or not, planning for your pets' care can give you peace of mind. No matter what we think of our pets, legally they are property, and unless specific arrangements are made, they will be treated like property after your death. 

Several sources can assist you in ensuring the results you want. Sadly, it’s not as simple as stating in a will "I want my dogs to be taken care of," or "the cats should go to my niece, Katie." What if Katie doesn’t want them, or is undergoing unseen financial misfortune when the time for transfer arrives? 

Several states have pet trust laws in place, including Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, New Mexico, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Tennessee, Washington, Wisconsin, and Utah. The laws are not the same in each state. In states without such laws, a trust becomes an honorary system. Without a pet trust, your only option is to designate a caretaker.

A book by Lisa Rogak, titled PerPETual Care: Who Will Look After Your Pets If You’re Not Around?, (published by Litterature) outlines some steps you can take, and mentions why certain approaches may not work but others will. Rogak states, "The law will regard the clause in your will where you bequeath money or property to your pets after death as the equivalent of leaving your car to your washing machine."  She discusses how to avoid challenges from relatives who don’t love pets, and explains how to make a workable, legal plan for your pets in the event of your death or disability. It’s not as straightforward as it sounds.

A company called PetGuardian estimates that 500,000 pets are euthanized at shelters and veterinary offices each year because their owners have died. PetGuardian offers pet trust plans. In conjunction with the Best Friends Animal Society, which operates the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, Utah, it has created the Best Friends Backup Service in which Best Friends will find a "backup caregiver" to ensure that pets are placed in good homes if the designated caregivers are unable to accept the pet. PetGuardian Pet Trust Plans have been created with the help of legal experts, estate planners, and animal care professionals. Veterinary Partner doesn't endorse PetGuardian, but we feel that you should be aware of its services.

Another option to using a service like PetGuardian is to talk to your attorney. While having an attorney create a trust is more expensive than a service like PetGuardian, the attorney will set up a  trust to take care of all your assets, not just pets. These trusts are aimed at reducing probate tax (the so-called "death tax"), but language regarding your pet would simply be included. There would be no additional fee for including pets as you pay for the service as a whole. It's really an issue of telling your attorney what your exact wishes are regarding your pets; this is especially true in states that have pet trust laws in place.

Not all veterinary colleges provide legacy/bequest services, but many do. In a legacy service, your pet will be adopted by a veterinary student, who will care for it for the rest of its life. Ask your veterinarian for names and addresses of veterinary colleges, and check into this fantastic program.

Being prepared for the worst, or at least the inevitable, can ease some of the concern at that time when everyone is upset and no one is sure what to do. Outlining exactly what you want to happen makes a big difference. 

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