Planning for Your Pets in Your Estate Plan

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Lauren Pitman

Author, Attorney

Meet Maisie, our family Labradoodle. We all love her, and we feel she is an important part of our family. Many families feel this way about their pets, yet most do not plan for what will happen to their pet in the event the owners were to pass away unexpectedly.

You may have heard of Leona Helmsley and the multi-million-dollar trust created in her estate plan for her dog, Trouble. The Helmsley trust was ultimately reduced by the Court from the original 12 million dollars to 2 million dollars. These funds, as directed in Ms. Helmsley’s estate plan, were to pay for Trouble’s care and included a salary for Trouble’s care giver. While I have never drafted a 12-million-dollar trust for a household pet, I have had my own surreal moments of estate planning for a small dog while he sat on my conference room table.

In the legal world, pets are considered chattel and the law around their transfer was historically based upon the laws that protected farmers and their livestock. As chattel, pets are considered to be the tangible personal property of their owners. As a result, pets can be transferred to individuals upon the owner’s death through a bequest in a will or even, depending on state law, on a separate list referenced in the owner’s will.

Ensuring a pet is cared for can be important goal for many people. A trust (set up either in a revocable living trust or under a will) can be created to ensure there are funds available to care for the animal. Careful consideration must be made to the amount held in trust as the value of the trust can be limited by state law. Once an amount is determined, attention must also be given to the following additional aspects of the trust plan.

  • Who will manage the trust money?
  • Will the money manager and caretaker be the same person?
  • How will the identity of the pet be confirmed to avoid exploitation of the trust money on an imposter pet?
  • Who will receive the remaining trust funds upon the death of the pet?

For many, a pet trust, which requires annual administration and tax reporting obligations, are more burdensome than the individual wishes to create. Therefore, another option is to make a simple monetary bequest to the individual who takes care and control of the pet. This plan requires trust that the care giver will indeed care for the pet for the animal’s life expectancy and not just claim the money and give the animal away.

Having a primary care giver and an alternate named person is advised as well. The trustee or personal representative named in your will will have the authority to place your pet with those named individuals.

In addition, consideration should also be made to naming temporary caregivers for your pet should you become temporarily incapacited. Your agent named in your Durable Power of Attorney should know how many animals you have in the home and how to get ahold of your temporary caregivers.

One of the best options I have found in my practice for ensuring your furry loved ones will be cared for is a pet guardian program which may be available through your local Humane Society. The Seattle Humane Society offers such a program for those who choose to enroll. For a flat fee, the Humane Society will take up to 5 dogs, cats, or other small animals the plan enrollee owns at the time of their death. Under the program, the Humane Society will pick up the animals (within 100 miles of their location) immediately upon notification of the owner’s death. Upon request, they will keep the pets together and care for the animals until they are placed in adoptive homes. This program is the perfect answer to many pet owners concern about who will take care of their animals if they were to unexpectedly pass away.

Insert link to Humane Society Pet Guardian Program

For so many pet owners, the care and consideration of their pets is incredibly important to them. A thoughtful pet owner may wish to extend their estate planning to include the care and financial support of their pets as well as their friends and family.

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Disclaimer: The information contained in this article should not be considered tax or legal advice and is not a substitute for such advice. State and federal laws change frequently and the information in this article may not reflect your own state's laws or the most recent changes in state or federal law. For current tax and legal advice, please consult with an accountant or attorney licensed to practice in your state.
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