Estate Planning for Your Pets

 In Blog, Estate Planning

While pets may be much-loved members of your family the law does not allow you to leave money to your pets when you die. However, you can make sure your pet will be taken care of after your death by including your pet in your estate plan. The goal of estate planning for pets is to ensure your furry companion is cared for the same way you do. You want to ensure that your pet goes to a good home and the new caretaker has the resources to care for your pet.

In this article, we’ll talk about:

  • Options for pet protection and estate planning for pets
  • Choosing a caregiver for your pet
  • Formalizing your plan in a legally binding agreement

Option One for Estate Planning for Pets — Non-Legal Arrangements for Your Pet

One option for pet protection is to make a non-legal arrangement for your pet after your death. Some individuals ask their children, friends, or other family members if they will care for their pet after their death. Other individuals assume family members will be willing to take their pet. However, these non-legal arrangements do not provide the level of pet protection that estate planning for pets provides.

Option Two for Estate Planning for Pets — Providing for Your Pet in Your Will

Strange as it may seem, the law views pets as property.  Therefore, you can leave your pet to a specific person in your will to transfer pet ownership. By treating your pet as property in your will, you are relinquishing any decision-making authority regarding your pet’s care after your death. You may also leave money or property to the person to help pay for the care and upkeep of your pet, but you cannot legally require the person to use the money or property for your pet.

You cannot even be sure that the person will not give your pet away, sell your pet, or abandon your pet. If you want to ensure your pet receives adequate care after your death, you may want to consider a pet trust.

Option Three for Estate Planning for Pets – Creating a Pet Trust

Pets are important members of the family who provide love, companionship, joy, and protection. Unfortunately, the law does not view “fur babies” in the same way as their parents. Pets cannot own property or money. Therefore, you cannot leave money or property directly to your pet in your will or a trust agreement.  However, you can create a pet trust to provide for the financial needs of your pet.

A pet trust allows you to set aside a sum of money for your pet’s care. The trustee of the pet trust typically becomes the owner of the pet and uses the funds in the trust for the pet’s care. Money from the trust may be used to pay recurring costs for the pet such as food, medications, toys, grooming, and veterinary care. The trust may also pay a percentage each month to the caretaker/trustee for housing the pet and caring for the pet.

A pet owner knows his or her pet’s preferences and habits better than anyone else. Therefore, the owner can use a pet trust to leave detailed instructions for the caretaker to ensure the pet continues to receive the same level of care and comfort the pet received before the owner’s death.

A pet trust can be extremely specific regarding the care provided for the pet. For instance, the trust may specify how many times the pet is to be seen by a groomer or a veterinarian each year. It may also specify the brand of food that must be used to feed your pet, specific instructions related to shelter conditions, required play time, and exercise regimens.

What Happens After the Pet Passes Away?

A pet trust terminates after the last animal living at the time of the settlor’s (the pet owner) death dies, unless the trust agreement contains other terms. So, let’s say you have three labradoodles when you die. The pet trust would terminate when the last labradoodle passes. California Probate Code §15212 states that any property remaining in the trust after the termination of the trust is distributed as directed by the trust agreement.

In many cases, a pet owner directs that the caregiver receives any remaining money or property after the pet’s death. However, a person may choose to leave the remaining trust assets to a charity that benefits animals.

If the trust agreement does not provide for the distribution of the remaining funds, the money or property is distributed according to the residuary clause in the person’s will. The residuary clause in a will names an heir for any property or money that is not otherwise bequeathed in another section of the will.

Discussing Your Wishes with the Caregiver

You would not name a guardian or trustee for your child without discussing the matter with the person first. Likewise, you should discuss the pet trust with the trustee/caregiver before executing the trust agreement. Caring for a pet can be time-consuming. You need to ensure that the person you name as the trustee/caregiver is willing to accept the responsibility of being a pet owner.

Do I Need a California Estate Planning Attorney to Draft a Pet Trust?

For many individuals, providing for a pet after their death is an important consideration as they develop their estate plan. Elderly individuals may not have family members or friends that can care for their pet. They can name a charity or other organization as the trustee in a pet trust to ensure the pet receives care. Young couples may also want to consider a pet trust to ensure that a beloved family pet remains with their children should something happen to them while their children are young.

As with any estate planning matter, it can be helpful to discuss your options with a California estate planning attorney. An attorney can ensure the pet trust meets all legal requirements for maximum pet protection.

It is rare that someone contests or challenges a pet trust.  However, in the event a family member or organization attempts to challenge your pet trust, working with an attorney can decrease the chance that the party would be successful in the challenge because of a mistake or error in the trust agreement.

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