Pets can come in many shapes and sizes. Dogs and cats are obviously the most common. But there are others, ranging from birds to reptiles to guinea pigs. Yet they all have something in common ― they rely on their owners for care.
Every pet guardian needs a basic plan to pass caretaking responsibilities and ownership of their pet to a person or organization they trust. And the more unique your pet’s needs, the more important it is that you make a plan for it.
Your plan should consider these components of your pet’s care:
- Making sure your pet is taken care of immediately after your death.
- Providing for your pet’s long-term needs in your will.
- Choosing a caretaker for your pets.
- Looking at perpetual care programs.
- Covering all the bases with a pet trust.
Making sure your pet is taken care of immediately after your death
When you pass away, will someone you trust have immediate access to your home to make sure your pets have food and water? Who will walk your dog or clean your cat’s litter box? Who will give your pet any medication they need?
“I don’t think many people consider the stress their death will put on their pets after they’re gone,” said Daniel Caughill, co-founder of The Dog Tale, a Yorkie-focused dog-care website. “Pets, and especially dogs, can be very emotionally attached animals, and losing you will cause enough distress on its own.”
Individuals who are older or chronically ill may have taken the time to formulate pet plans as part of their overall estate and legacy planning. And many may have friends or family who are already caring for their pets. But unfortunate events and illness can happen to anyone. And some types of pets, like turtles or various bird species, have life expectancies longer than people. So all pet owners, regardless of age, need a plan. (Related: What is estate planning?)
Who is someone you trust that lives locally and knows how to care for the type of animal you have? Give that person a key to your home, the guest code to your alarm, and instructions detailing your pet’s needs: what they eat and how much, what medications they require, and who their vet is. Perhaps make some sort of agreement about cash to cover such expenses. Now you’ve got the basics covered.
These arrangements will also be helpful if you are temporarily hospitalized, have to leave town suddenly, or face another emergency that requires you to be away from home for long enough that your pets would need care.
Providing for your pet’s long-term needs in your will
The law considers pets to be property, so you’ll need to leave them to someone in your will to make sure that person can legally claim ownership. But don’t just name someone: Talk to that person and make sure they are willing.
“Inheriting a pet — especially if you don’t already have one — can be a big responsibility,” Caughill said. “So, it can help to start a small savings fund that will go to your pet’s caretaker to cover expenses for the first year or two after you pass.”
Leave money for your pet’s care to the same person you leave your pet to. Name an alternate in case your first choice predeceases you or their circumstances change. (Related: Will basics)
Be aware, however, that the person you leave the money to will be able to use the money for anything they want; there will be no legal requirement or accountability for them to dedicate the money to your pet’s care, nor will they have to keep your pet. Also, because a will must go through probate, it can take time for the person you’ve named to officially become your pet’s new owner — another reason why making the immediate plans described earlier is so important.
If you have pet insurance, find out if your policy can be transferred to a new owner. If not, any preexisting conditions are unlikely to be covered if your pet’s ownership changes. (Related: Should you get pet insurance?)
If you can afford it, leave enough money to your pet’s new owner to pay cash for any medications or treatments that are currently covered by insurance but might not be covered under a new policy. Also consider leaving money for a lifetime of pet insurance premiums, as well as things that insurance may not cover, like veterinary exam fees, dental care, and pet food.
A reasonable sum to leave for your pet really depends on the type of animal, said Christine N. Fletcher, a partner with the Boston law firm Burns & Levinson LLP, whose practice includes trusts and estates.
“For instance, $25,000 or $50,000 may be sufficient for a dog or cat; however, a horse will require more than that,” she said.
Choosing a caretaker for your pets
When choosing a caretaker for your pets, think about what your pets will need after your death and who in your life could best provide for those needs. Who will have the time to walk your dog every day? Who has the patience and skill to give your cat a pill? Who spends enough time at home to help your pet through their own grieving process when they realize you aren’t coming back?
If you don’t have a person like that in your life — maybe you have four cats, and everyone you know is a dog person — then look into leaving your pet to an organization. Again, it’s crucial to make sure the organization is willing and able to collect and care for your pet. Don’t just leave your pet to the rescue organization you adopted it from without consulting them first.
As another option, even if you don’t know anyone who could provide for your pet, do you know someone you would trust with the responsibility of quickly and safely rehoming your pet? That person could be a good choice to name as the caretaker of your pet.
Perpetual pet care programs
Organizations exist that will care for a deceased owner’s pet with advance arrangements and a donation or fee. You may find a program like this at a nearby college of veterinary medicine; one such program is the Perpetual Pet Care Program at Kansas State University. The all-volunteer nonprofit organization 2nd Chance 4 Pets can help you find a perpetual pet care program near you.
Kansas State’s program lets you pay its $25,000 care fee through your estate, which means you don’t have to worry about paying up front or donating funds to an organization that might never care for your pet because your pet might predecease you.
If you are concerned about having enough in your estate or otherwise providing financially for your pet after you pass away, life insurance can help. The proceeds of a life insurance policy are generally tax free and can be used for any purpose. (More on this topic: Why you should get disability insurance and life insurance)
There are also private organizations that, for a fee, will handle everything for your pet, from picking them up from your home to providing lifelong care. Dancing Creek Farm in southern Virginia provides this service, as well as short- and long-term dog boarding and care and care for senior dogs whose owners are unable to look after them. It’s best to make arrangements with a company like this well in advance or they may not have the capacity to take on your pet.
Covering all the bases with a pet trust
Unlike a will, which allows you to leave money to someone to care for your pet but doesn’t obligate them to use the money as you’ve specified, a pet trust establishes a legal requirement and oversight for your money to be spent on your pet as you’ve directed. You’ll name an individual or financial institution as trustee to oversee the money in the trust, and a beneficiary who will be your pet’s designated caregiver using the trust fund. You’ll also want to specify what should happen to any remaining funds after your pet passes away, who will administer the trust and provide pet care if your first choices become unavailable.
A pet trust established as a living trust rather than a testamentary trust can also make sure that your pet gets its needs met while you’re alive if you can’t provide care — for example, if you go into a hospital, assisted living facility, or nursing home, or if you become physically or mentally disabled. (Learn more: Planning for diminished mental capacity as you age)
A simpler method to provide for these circumstances is a durable financial power of attorney, which names someone to handle your affairs if you become incapacitated. This document can make provisions for your pet’s care. But it loses effect when you pass away.
Pet trusts are legal in all 50 states, but state laws about pet trusts vary. An estate planning attorney or state-specific legal software can help you establish a pet trust that will hold up in court.
How can you make sure your estate or trust will have the money you've designated for your pet when the time comes?
“You need to carve money off the top for the pet trust, and if you want to be sure that those funds will be there, you can always use life insurance to fund the pet trust,” Fletcher said.
A financial professional can coordinate an overall financial plan to help meet such aims. (Need a financial professional?)
If you don’t make a plan for your pet now, the brutal truth is that it may suffer and even die from neglect if something happens to you. Start with the simplest step: providing for your pet’s immediate needs. Then you can work on more detailed, longer-term plans, like providing for your pet in your will and possibly even establishing a pet trust.
We’ve trained our pets to depend on us, and they’ve rewarded us with unconditional love. It’s our duty to uphold that trust and return their affection by making sure they’ll receive the care they deserve for their entire lives.
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This article was originally published in September 2018. It has been updated.