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Providing for Your Pet in Your Estate Plan

Have you thought about what will happen to your pet in the event that you suffer a critical illness or pass away? It’s a tough subject to consider, but it’s a vital one to address sooner, rather than later.

As the AARP points out:

“Animals who outlive their owners face uncertain fates. Under the best circumstances, a family member or friend cares for your pet for the rest of its life. If not, your pet goes to a shelter, is euthanized, or is simply let out the front door. The Humane Society of the United States estimates six to eight million dogs and cats enter shelters annually. Only half are adopted.”

So, what steps can you take to protect and provide for your pet in a difficult time? Here are a few things to keep in mind…

Your Pet Is Your Property

It’s important to understand that while you may think of your furry friend as a full member of your family, the reality is that your pet, under the eyes of the law, is generally classified as your property.

This is a vital thing to understand! For one thing, this classification means that you cannot directly leave assets – such as money or property – to a pet. You cannot name a pet as a direct beneficiary of your estate in your will.

For another thing, this means that your pet is generally going to be considered along with the rest of your assets when it comes to probate. That is to say that if you do not specifically set up your estate plan with the intent of caring for your pet, then local laws will dictate what can and will happen.

So, with this in mind, what estate planning mechanisms can allow you to provide for your pet?


You may be tempted to lay down directions for what happens to your pet in your last will and testament. But, as Rachel Hirschfeld points out in this article for the American Bar, it’s important to realize that this document may not be enough to ensure that your pets are “adequately protected” in the way you might like.

As she notes, the purpose of a will is to disburse property, not enforce the decedent’s demands. That is to say that even if you leave your cat and a certain amount of money to a relative, there is no guarantee that this person will care for the cat forever (or put the entirety of the money toward its intended use).

At the same time, Hirschfeld suggests that wills aren’t right for providing for a pet for its entire lifetime. The functions of a will are also fundamentally limited; they generally cannot provide for what happens to your pet during the probate process (which can be lengthy), or in the event that you become incapacitated.

Pet Trust

One way to bolster the provisions of your will, or to provide for your pet by different means, is to look into establishing a pet trust. Writing for Forbes, Rob Clarfeld explains a pet trust as:

“essentially, a vehicle for providing for the ongoing custody and costs of pet ownership. Similar to other types of trusts, they can be created and funded currently (inter vivos) or upon death through one’s will (testamentary).”

Pet trusts can help control the disbursement of funds, and often allow for provisions for what happens to your pet in the event of incapacitation on your part. The powers of a pet trust, broadly speaking, help create a legal obligation for your chosen caretaker to provide for your pet as you wish, above and beyond what may be dictated in a will. You may also appoint a separate party – not the caretaker or guardian of your pet – to protect or invest the funds.

As Betsy Simmons Hannibal points out over at NOLO, however, there are certain disadvantages to a pet trust, including the cost, the relative inflexibility afforded by a trust, and the amount of planning and structure they might require.

Other Arrangements

In many cases, you may be able to provide for your pet after your death by way of informal agreements or arrangements – particularly if you don’t foresee there being disputes or contests over the ownership of your pet.

For instance, a quick way to take steps to provide for the care of your pet immediately following your death is to account for the animal in your letter of final wishes, which can provide essential information about how to care for the pet, and specify who should be the caregiver (even temporarily).

You may also be able to set up an arrangement with a program, such as the SPCA, or a private animal sanctuary, to care for your pet, if you don’t expect to find anyone willing or able to care for your pet after you pass.

The Bottom Line

While the unique circumstances will vary from person to person, one of the most important things to remember is that your estate plan must account for everything – including your pets. It’s important to be proactive when it comes to estate planning, and to work with a professional who is willing to listen to your needs and find the solution that works for you.

Have any further questions? Want to keep the conversation going? Don’t hesitate to get in touch today!

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