Estate Planning for Pets


Estate planning is one of the most important things you can do to protect those you love — including your pets. Have you considered what will happen to your pet in the event you become incapacitated, or worse, pass away? All too often, when someone passes away unexpectedly and without a plan in place, their beloved pets end up in a shelter.  When relatives or friends are unable or unwilling to take in a pet — especially on short notice — the pet can be at risk of being euthanized due to space constraints, health issues, or because the pet is considered “unadoptable” for some reason.

A traditional estate planning option that incorporates the placement of pets would involve designating a person in the Last Will & Testament to become the pet’s new owner, but even this may not ensure that the new owner will take responsibility, or have the financial resources to maintain the animal.  A more comprehensive solution to this problem would be to create a “Pet Trust”  in which a pool of assets would be held in trust for the benefit of the animal, and a designated trustee would have access to the funds in order to care for the pet for the rest of his/her life.  While the Pet Trust certainly accomplishes the goal of ensuring the animals are looked after, it can be tedious and expensive to establish and maintain such an arrangement.

Only recently has an alternative option become available, one involving the partnership of a non-profit organization dedicated to taking care of animals in need, known as “The Pet Project” and their “Pet Legacy Program.”

Including Your Pets in Your Last Will & Testament

If you know someone willing to take on the responsibility of looking after your pet in the event something happens to you, it is best to bequeath the pet to the identified friend or family member in your estate plan, such as your Last Will and Testament.

Most people don’t realize that pets are considered tangible personal property under the law.  Due to this classification, it is not possible to leave money directly to your pet via your estate plan, but your pet can be left to someone, with or without money to care for your pet.  If you decide to leave money to a caregiver for your pet via your Last Will and Testament, just keep in mind there is little to no way to monitor if the person actually uses the funds for the benefit of your pet.

Another potential disadvantage of simply utilizing a Will to transfer ownership of your pet, is that your plan only takes effect when you pass away.  If you become incapacitated or fall ill, your Will won’t help with temporary arrangements while you are still alive.

Creating a Pet Trust

While it may require more resources, some pet owners prefer to create a pet trust.  With this option, you can leave your pet to a new owner, as well as designate a pool of funds to be utilized by the caregiver to take care of the pet.  Unlike bequeathing your pet and money through a will, a trust allows you to set clear instructions for your pet’s care. You may describe how the pet should be cared for, what can be done with any money that is left over once the pet dies, and even name someone responsible for enforcing the terms of the trust.

A pet trust can be incorporated into of an existing revocable trust or it can be a completely separately entity.  To set up a trust its recommended that you work with an experienced estate planning attorney to draft the necessary trust document and select an appropriate trustee to be in charge of disbursing the fund, as well as taking care for the animal.  Sometimes the trustee and the care provider will be the same person, but occasionally the two roles will be occupied by two different people.

The Pet Project and Pet Legacy Program

If you do not know someone willing and able to adopt your pet, if something happens to you, you may consider a legacy arrangement.  One of the largest and most well-known organizations in South Florida is The Pet Project, a local charity dedicated to ensuring all pets are taken care of, or possibly re-homed, in the event their owners become ill or pass away. The nonprofit has taken in thousands of animals since 2002 and is dedicated to providing long-term, permanent care for pets when friends and family cannot take on the additional responsibility.

To participate in the Pet Legacy Program, you must make a minimum gift of $10,000 per pet via your Will, a life insurance policy, a retirement account or other distribution vehicle which names The Pet Project – Pet Legacy Program as a beneficiary. This arrangement will guarantee that when you pass away, the Pet Project will pick up your pet, give it appropriate medical care, and find it a permanent, loving home.

You will want to consult with an experienced attorney and financial advisors to customize a charitable giving vehicle that fits your situation.

Start Estate Planning for Your Beloved Animal Friend Today

Without estate planning for your pets, they will likely go to whoever is named as the residual beneficiary of your Will, or of there is no Will, your pets will be distributed along with the rest of your property based on interstate laws.  If immediate family members aren’t willing to take care of your pets and no one is aware of arrangements you have made, your pets are likely to end up in a shelter.  The best thing you can do to protect the well-being and health of your pets is working with an estate planning attorney to make sure they are included in your estate plan.

To learn more about estate planning for pets in Florida, contact Walser Law Firm at (561) 515-5912 or fill out a contact form today.

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