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Including Your Pets in your Estate Plan

All dogs may go to heaven, but what happens if you get there first? As an estate planning attorney, I frequently advise clients on how to protect assets from long-term care and nursing home costs, estate taxes, probate, and more. But for some people, there’s more to estate planning than money and real estate.  Planning the next steps for pets can be critical.

While leaving money to pets was once the purview of the ultra-rich—Leona Helmsley famously left millions to her dog Trouble—it is now a common element of estate plans of all sizes. In a will or trust, you can create a bequest for the care of your animals. In deciding the amount, it is advisable to consider the age and health of the pet, and how much money it will take to provide the animal with the lifestyle to which it is accustomed. You then select a caregiver with whom the animal will live, and a trustee who will manage the funds. For many people, dogs and cats are like children, and choosing the people who will take charge of them is crucial. You may select the same person for the role of caregiver and trustee, but some people choose to separate the roles and create a system of checks and balances to ensure that Fido’s money is being spent expeditiously and to maximum effect.  Appointing backup agents in these roles is also important. Further, you should leave a letter of instruction covering topics like your pet’s personality, veterinary records, microchip info, etc. As with any trust, there must be a remainder beneficiary. Where will the remaining funds go when the animal passes after living its best life thanks to the money you set aside? Many people choose family members or animal charities here.

Be sure that the people involved in your pet trust are aware of their roles and want the job. It is not a good idea to bequeath someone a dog or cat in hopes of teaching them a lesson in responsibility or to leave someone an unrelated bequest contingent upon their taking on the role of caretaker for an animal. This can foster resentment and may not create the best environment for the pet. Further, the person(s) you name must be ready and able to spring into action in the event of your death or disability. It can be days or weeks before a will or trust is handled after someone dies, and animals cannot wait.

If you are not able to find a willing caretaker for your pet, consult your veterinarian, as well as the shelter or breeder where you got the animal.  There are options for dogs and cats who need rehoming. For all the love and companionship that our pets provide us, they deserve a plan where they can thrive and enjoy their lives if we predecease them.

This is not intended to be legal advice.  You should contact an attorney for advice regarding your specific situation.


Michael Wagner is senior counsel concentrating on elder law and estate planning, wills and trusts.  He conducts several Estate Planning Seminars throughout the year.
He can be reached by phone at 866-303-9595 toll free or 845-764-9656 and by email.
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