When Estate Planning, Don’t Forget Your Furry Family Members

by Larissa Stein

From the first moment you brought your pet home, your pet has relied on you for nearly everything, and you have provided loving care, safety, and a happy life.  But have you given any thought to what would happen if you became unable to look out for your pet due to either serious illness or death?  Most of us know it is crucial to have an estate plan in place if we have young children, but, despite the fact that pets will never outgrow their complete dependence on us, far fewer of us consider what would happen to our pets if anything should happen to us.  Animal shelters are overflowing with pets whose owners did not plan ahead.  Pets who are fortunate enough to end up in no-kill shelters may still face a bleak future if there are factors that reduce their likelihood of being adopted, such as old age, health issues, or undesirable behaviors that may simply be triggered by fear about their unfamiliar circumstances. Consider the following steps to ensure your pet is cared for no matter what.

  1. Identify a Caretaker. Consider several individuals whom you would trust to lovingly and responsibly care for your pet if it ever became necessary, and have candid conversations with them about whether they would be willing and able to do so.  Ideally, after your conversations, you will have identified a primary caretaker and at least one backup caretaker for your pet.
  1. Update your Will. Degrading as it may seem, under the law pets are considered personal property.  As with other personal property (e.g., jewelry, furniture), you may leave your pet to a specific person or a trust in your Will.  Consider updating your Will to state that you leave your pet to the person you identified as caretaker for your pet.
  1. Provide for Your Pet Financially. As those of us with pets know, even the basic costs associated with pets can be significant, especially when you factor in the likelihood of increased medical expenses as your pet ages.  If you make provisions to cover some or all of your pet’s expenses, you will reduce the burden on your pet’s caretaker, increase the likelihood that the caretaker will be able to accept responsibility for your pet, and help ensure care in the manner in which your pet is accustomed.  Remember that, because your pet is personal property in the eyes of the law, you cannot leave money to your pet outright, but there are ways to make funds available for the benefit of your pet.  A simple option is to leave a certain sum of money to the caretaker in your Will and state that it is your wish that the caretaker use the funds to care for your pet.  While this may be a viable option in some circumstances, it is less than ideal because the request that the caretaker use the money for your pet is not legally enforceable.  Legally, the money belongs to the caretaker, not your pet.  Even if the caretaker you select is honest and conscientious, the caretaker may not have complete control of the funds; for example, creditors of the caretaker can demand that the funds be used to pay them, and the money will become part of the caretaker’s estate if the caretaker predeceases your pet.  A safer and more versatile opinion is a trust for your pet.  Although pets cannot own property, North Carolina and South Carolina laws specifically allows pets to be beneficiaries of trusts. Pet trusts are an effective means for anyone to ensure care for their pets in accordance with their wishes.  You can fund a pet trust during your lifetime, leave a certain amount of your estate to the trust via your Will, or designate the trust as the beneficiary of a percentage of your life insurance.  A pet trust can provide for your pet both during your life (such as if you become disabled and can no longer care for your pet) and after your death.  The trust assets must be used for the benefit of your pet, and you can put specific instructions in the trust regarding your pet’s care.

Pets are an integral part of our families and are counting on us to take care of them.  Let’s not let them down. With some thought and advance planning, you can ensure your beloved pet is taken care of whatever the circumstances.

Larissa Stein is an attorney with Garrity & Gossage, LLP whose passion is helping those in North and South Carolina provide a more secure future for themselves and their loved ones through Wills, Trusts, Powers of Attorney, Guardianship, Probate, and Elder Law Services. Please note that this article is intended for general information purposes only, and is not legal advice. Legal advice depends on the specific facts and circumstances of each individual’s situation. Those seeking specific legal advice or assistance should contact an attorney.