June 17, 2024
What will happen to your pets after you die? Make a plan for your furry friends.

What will happen to your pets after you die? Make a plan for your furry friends.

Most people consider their pet a member of the family. And as for any family member, caring for that loved one includes thinking about what will happen to them after you die.

Every year, about 500,000 pets are surrendered to shelters because their owner dies or becomes disabled without a long-term care plan for their animal, said Amy Shever, the founder and director of 2nd Chance 4 Pets, an advocacy group that works to provide lifetime care solutions for pets.

“Healthy, adoptable animals are getting euthanized,” Shever said. “You have to get out of your comfort zone and talk about difficult things.”

Peggy Hoyt, an attorney with the Law Offices of Hoyt & Bryan, has written a book on the topic, titled “All My Children Wear Fur Coats: How to Leave a Legacy for your Pets.”

“It’s important to plan for our pets,” Hoyt said. “They’re members of our family and they can’t plan for themselves.”

“ ‘It’s important to plan for our pets. They’re members of our family and they can’t plan for themselves.’”

— Peggy Hoyt, attorney and author

When you don’t have a plan in place for your pets, Hoyt said, “you’re relying on good intentions of family and friends, and that’s not a plan — that’s wishful thinking. It’s a hard fact to get across to people. If they don’t plan for their pet, their pet may end up dead.”

So how can you make sure your pet will be taken care of should anything happen to you?

The first thing you should know is that when you die, your pet is considered property. So if you bequeathed your estate to your three children, they would each own one-third of your pet, said Gerry Beyer, a professor at Texas Tech University School of Law and an estate planner. 

To avoid that, you need to create a trust for the pet. Legally, it’s not possible to leave money directly to an animal, so you’ll need to set up what’s known as a pet trust. That trust should be funded with enough money to ensure the proper care of the pet for its lifetime. A trustee, such as a lawyer or a bank, is named and is obligated to make sure the pet is cared for according to your instructions, according to Beyer.

The trustee’s role is to give the pet to the designated caregiver or beneficiary of the trust, who would use the funds in the trust to pay your pet’s expenses.

Hoyt cautions against putting instructions for a pet’s care into a traditional will, because if the will goes to probate, the pet will be in limbo until legal issues are resolved. 

Instead, she urges pet owners to create a custom trust with the help of an experienced estate attorney. “Not all lawyers are qualified to create pet trusts, much like all doctors are not qualified to do brain surgery,” she said.

There are different types of trusts. 

One, called a traditional pet trust, is effective in all states. You can specify the trustee who will manage the funds, as well as the beneficiary, or pet caregiver, and what type of expenses relating to the pet the trustee will pay for, Beyer said. 

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You can also provide instructions about where the animal should live, what type of care it will receive, what happens if the beneficiary can no longer care for the animal and what should happen after the pet dies, according to Beyer.

There should always be a trustee overseeing the management of the assets and ensuring that the funds get used for the proper care of the pet, Hoyt said. When the last pet in your trust has died, you should assign any remaining funds to go to a charity rather than a person, so there’s no one with a vested interest in a pet’s death, Hoyt said. 

A second type of pet trust, called a statutory pet trust, is also authorized in all states. A statutory pet trust is a more basic plan and does not require the pet owner to make as many decisions regarding the terms of the trust, Beyer said. It is not as comprehensive, and this type of trust is not favored by all animal advocates.

In general, creating a pet trust is “not difficult and not expensive,” Beyer said. “It should be routine. Plan for your kids, your grandkids, nieces, nephews and pets. You want someone to monitor the care of the pet. A trust is enforceable.”

A living trust, meanwhile, also can be created in case you become disabled or unable to care for your pet for a medical reason, Hoyt said. 

When creating a trust, make sure you plan for a long life for your pet so the resources don’t run out or get used up in a medical emergency, Hoyt said. For dogs, you should plan for a 20-year lifespan, she said, while for cats, you should plan for 25 years, 40 years for horses and even longer for long-lived exotic pets like parrots or tortoises.

To make sure your pet doesn’t end up without a home, you should identify one or more people who can be short- and long-term caregivers, Hoyt said. Have alternatives, too, in case the primary caregivers become unable or unwilling to take responsibility for the pet for its lifetime. 

You can consider naming a sanctuary or no-kill shelter as one of your alternative caregivers, Shever said. Many rescues, shelters and veterinary schools have perpetual-care programs, but some programs are costly. 

The most important thing is to create some kind of plan for your pets.

“Many people care more for their pets than their family members. If you care, you have to make plans,” Beyer said.

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