Thursday, July 25, 2024

Estate Planning for Your Pet

ZizouDo you have an estate plan? If so, did your attorney ask about your pets? Recently, in my own practice, it became apparent that even if you have done some estate planning many attorneys don't even stop to think about the family's pets. None of us likes to think about dying or becoming incapacitated; however, we must and, as pet owners (or persons owned by pets), we need not only provide for distribution of assets, guardianship of minor children and the like, but for our pets as well.

Those who work in rescue see all to often the results of not planning-the older wire rescued from a garage sale held by the grandkids; a 12-year old Airedale left at a shelter; the cat left to the daughter, who had a child with allergies. The horror stories go on. Most reputable breeders will always take back one of its dogs-even many years later if there is no alternative but most executors have no way of knowing this.

Therefore, the responsible owner should investigage the following options:

Individual Caretaker

Many states do not allow monies to be left directly to animals; however, some, like California, recognize and enforce a form of trust (sometimes called "honorary") for the pet, with the funds going to the trustee for pet care.

My preference would be for the pet owner to find a trusted friend, who knows the pets and is willing to care for them, and to get their agreement in advance. Chose an alternate in case your first choice is no longer available or able to perform.

In states that do not recognize a trust, you can leave the pet and funds for its care to the guardian/new owner. This should be a conditional bequest. In other words, if the person is unable to take the pet, the money does not go to them. Also, the trustee and caretaker can be separate parties if the trustee cannot personally care for the pet.

Shelters and Charitable Organizations

There are various organizations, which, for a bequest or donation, will commit to providing for your pet for the balance of its life. One Veterinary School requested a minimum $20,000 "donation"; a California nonprofit suggested a $3,000 bequest and arrangements to be made in advance. Usually they are contacted by persons who have nowhere else to turn for the care of their beloved pet and know that they have limited time. I see them as an alternative when no other avenue exists..


Some people, convinced that their pets would not survive without them provide for immediate euthanasia. The courts may or may not enforce such a directive depending upon the age and health of the pet and whether or not anyone attempts to stop the directive. This could also be an alternative provision in your will if no person or organization could be found in a set period of time to take over as caretaker of the pet.

Another alternative would be to direct your executor or a friend or relative outside of the Will to take such action if necessary.

Short-term or Care While Incapacitated

Give informal instructions to a friend or relative (including a key to your residence) for the care of your pet should you be unable to get home or provide care for a period of time. A letter of authorization to incur expenses and take custody of the pet in the event of your death or incapacity as an interim measure should be written. Some charitable organizations may provide short- term care. A card in your wallet regarding pet care in addition to other emergency information is another precaution which could be taken.

Provision for pets should also be made in your Durable Power of Attorney, which should be part of your estate plan in the event of incapacity.

Breed Clubs/Rescue Organizations

My own plan will include a directive that if my chosen caretakers are unable to take care of my pets, that the local breed club be contacted and/or an internet breed group. I have seen a lot of rescues and new homes found by loving members of the internet breed groups as well as our own Fox Terrier Club of Northern California Rescue.

While it is impossible to provide all of the options here, it is hoped that this discussion has at least started those of you who haven't made a plan - or have, like me, been thinking about it, decide to be prepared because, unlike minor children, there will be no court-appointed guardian to take care of your beloved pets should provisions not be made now.

Carol Lerner is an attorney in Walnut Creek, CA who is also owned by two wires. The information contained in this column is general in nature and you should consult your local attorney for specific advice. Reproduced with permission of the author. ©2002.

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