Americans love their pets. In fact, about 65% of U.S. households – roughly 80 million total – have at least one pet. That’s according to the Insurance Information Institute, which also found that cats are slightly more popular than dogs.
For many of these households, pets are often seen as members of the family. And while we don’t have to think about sending our pets to college or listen to them complain (except maybe at mealtime or when they want to go outside), if you worry what will happen to your pets when you die or can no longer care for them, it’s best to address those possibilities in your estate plan.
One good way to plan for your pets is to create a revocable living trust and include provisions that allow your trustee to spend the money necessary to care for them. You can also make it clear to your family that your pets are important to you and that you want them with you as long as possible.
In addition, you can let your family members know that if you have to move into an assisted living facility or a nursing home, you would prefer to move to one that allows for pets or offers pet therapy at the very least. Again, a living trust can include very specific provisions regarding this. By the way, according to the National Center for Health Research, elderly individuals who cared for pets were better able to perform daily physical activities, which in turn allowed them to avoid having to move to an assisted living facility or a nursing home.
If you do not set up a living trust, you can make your wishes known to your family by writing them a letter of instruction. Although the letter will not be legally binding, it is still a good way to spell out all of your thoughts regarding what you want to happen to your pets. Reviewing all your wishes regarding your care, your pets care and your estate with your family members is wise.
Your estate plan can also help ensure that, when you die, your pets will be well cared for. For example, you can state in your will or in your revocable living trust document who you want to care for them after your death. It’s a good idea, however, to make sure that whomever you designate is willing to take on that responsibility.
Also, bear in mind that, although your pets may be like children to you, in the eyes of the law, they are property. Therefore you cannot leave them money or any other assets in order to help fund the cost of their care after your death. But, you can give money or property to the person you want to care for, which can be important because as you know, providing for a pet’s needs is not inexpensive. For many of you, leaving a sum of money in your will for that individual will suffice; if you do however, bear in mind that nothing will prevent him or her from using the money for some other purpose and/or from giving your pets away.
Is a Pet Trust Your Best Option?
An option that gives you more control over the care of your pets after your death is a pet trust. It allows you to dictate who will care for your pets (your Trustee) as well as how you want your pets to be cared for. For example, do want your cat to eat organic, grain-free cat food only? If so, you can state that in the trust document. Do you want your dog to be well-socialized and spend time at the local dog park? You can include that, too.
Not only does a pet trust allow you to maintain more control over the care of your pets than making a simple monetary gift to whomever you have chosen as their future caregiver, but it also lets you dictate what will happen to any extra money that may not be needed to care for a pet during its lifetime. (Want to learn more about finances after death? You can read this guide on 10 things you need to know.)
When you provide for your pets using your will or a trust, be sure to work with a qualified estate planning attorney. This is especially important when you are setting up a special kind of trust, like a pet trust.
Finally, one other option that may be available to you is to arrange for your pets to be cared for at an animal care facility in your area. For example, Texas A&M University runs the Stevenson Companion Animal Life-Care Center in College Station, Texas. You can search online for a similar facility in your area.
An animal care facility offers pet owners a safe home for the lifetime of their pet, but it often requires that an owner to pay a minimum donation per/pet. This kind of facility can be an excellent alternative if you don’t have any close friends or family members who are willing to care for your pets, or if you fear that caring for your pets could be a burden for your loved ones.
Melissa Donovan, JD, contributed to this article.