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Will Planning and Pet Trusts

What will happen to your companion animals if something happens to you? It's important to have a will and/or trust document that addresses the care of your animals. Unfortunately, not all will and estate planning professionals are experienced with provisions for pet care.

In any case, be sure to allot money in your will for the care of your pets in case you die or are incapacitated. Appoint a person you can trust to serve as caretaker of your animals, and appoint an alternate as well. Make sure these individuals will accept the responsibility before finalizing your will.

Choosing a Caregiver:

Decide if your animals should go to one person, or whether different pets should go to different people. Try to keep animals who have bonded with one another together.

Try to select two caregivers, in case something happens to one of your choices. Consider only trustworthy adults who have some familiarity with your animal and who have experience caring for pets. Discuss the responsibilities with your chosen caregivers and once you designate them, stay in touch. You'll need to be aware if their plans or personal circumstances change.

The caregivers should be identified in your will. In case something happens to your chosen caregivers, you can direct in the will that the executor of the will (also referred to as personal representative, administrator, or trustee of your estate) can place your animal with another responsible person. Many wills specify that a new animal caregiver (sometimes referred to as trustee for the animals) can be chosen if necessary and approved by a majority of the beneficiaries.

A temporary caregiver may have to be designated, so that the animal has someplace to go while the search is on for a permanent caregiver. Provide practical, realistic and somewhat flexible instructions in your will. Also, authorize your executor to expend funds from your estate for the temporary care of your pet as well as for the costs of finding a new home and transporting the animal to it. The will should also grant discretion to your executor for decisions about the animal and in expending estate funds on the animal's behalf.

The resources listed at the end of this tipsheet include a link to sample text for will provisions regarding pets.

Setting Up a Trust:

Many animal guardians/owners are now setting up legal trust funds for their animals, in which the appointed trustee is tasked with monitoring the designated caretaker over time, ensuring that he or she provides adequate care for the pets. A trust must explain how you want to dispose of the remainder of the fund after the animal dies.

The federal tax code doesn't help companion animal owners who want to set up pet trusts, since it limits its definition of beneficiary to a human being, a trust, estate, partnership, association, company or corporation -- no non-human animals. However, an increasing number of states have adopted laws that allow companion animals to be named as beneficiaries of trusts, and most of those states support enforcement of a trust on the pet's behalf if the trustee does not take appropriate action.

To find out what states currently allow pet trusts to be established and enforced, contact your state's attorney general or the Humane Society of the United States via www.hsus.org.

How Much Money for Animal Care:

Whether you're setting up a will or a trust, you need to provide a reasonable amount of money for both the trustee and the pet caretakers. Keep in mind that annual costs for care vary with the health and age of the individual animal. You need to cover food, grooming, vet care and many other expenses. You may even want to factor in money to cover boarding the pet for those times that the caretaker cannot travel with animals.

Costs might run $500 a year...or into the thousands. Consequently, you might need to develop investment plans for your money so that it lasts for the duration of the pet's life. Since finances could be affected by future inflation, some people phrase the funding text along the lines of 'X percent of the balance of my probate estate or $X,000, whichever is greater.'

While it is critical to provide sufficient funds, avoid grossly overfunding a trust, since some courts have cited overfunding as a reason to overturn a pet trust fund. Instead, try to calculate the amount based on the cost of boarding the animal at a good kennel for his or her maximum expected life span.

Contracting for Animal Care:

If setting up a trust fund is impractical, you can write a contract with someone able to take care of your animals, effective upon your death or incapacitation. You would designate your estate executor to act as your agent in administering the contract.

Legal Assistance:

Get assistance from legal professionals when making formal arrangements. An attorney can review complex issues regarding wills, trusts, complications in carrying out animal care instructions, and any additional documents you may need. For example, a trust can provide for care for a pet immediately if you die or if you become ill or disabled. A trust can be written to exclude certain assets from probate so that funds are available sooner to care for your pet.

You can also set up a Power of Attorney that authorizes a designated person to conduct some of your affairs if you become physically or mentally incapacitated. You can add provisions to authorize the person designated to handle your affairs to take care of your animals, to make available money for their care, and to place pets with permanent caregivers if need be.

Who Gets the Documents:

Leave copies of all documents with the executor or trustee of your estate and with your animal's designated caregivers. Make sure caregivers also have copies of your veterinary records and details about the individual pet's behavior and dietary needs.

Entrusting Care of Your Companion Animal to an Organization:

Most animal welfare groups and humane shelters do not have the space or funds to assume care for pets whose owners have become incapacitated or died. In addition, such groups cannot guarantee that an individual animal will be adopted. Occasionally, some groups may board and care for a pet temporarily until the designated caregiver can get the pet, but that's not something you can count on.

Some organizations and sanctuaries offer pet care and placement programs, typically for a per-animal fee or bequest detailed in your will. Before making such an arrangement, visit the facility to see how animals are cared for, who looks after them, whether the animals can receive adequate attention and exercise, and adoptive placement criteria and practices. Also discuss what might happen if the organization faces funding or staff shortages. Be sure to draw up the agreement in writing before putting it into your will.

Requesting an Animal be Euthanized if the Owner Dies:

Some owners may decide it best to have an animal companion euthanized upon the owner's death if they cannot find a responsible person who can commit long-term to accommodating the special needs of the animal. However, when an owner puts this provision in a will, it can be ruled invalid by the legal system, particularly if the animal is young or in good health. In any case, chose a responsible caregiver and discuss the animal's condition and needs so that the caregiver can make the best decision after you're gone.

Nursing Homes and Long Term Care Facilities:

A few do allow residents to bring their pets with them, so this may be a consideration when choosing a facility. Research your options.

Designate Temporary Caregivers and Prepare an Emergency Wallet Card:

Here's a relatively simple step you should take now: make plans in case you are involved in an emergency. This way, if you suddenly fall ill, get injured or otherwise incapacitated, your neighbors and coworkers will know that you have companion animals waiting at home, how many pets you have, and who they should call to take care of them.

First, ask two responsible friends or relatives to serve as temporary caregivers in the event something happens to you. Give them keys to your home, feeding and care instructions, your vet's name, and details about the permanent care plans you've made for your pet. Make sure they know where you keep your rabies certificate, vet records, pet supplies and first aid kit.

Next, make a pet emergency card listing your emergency caregivers and their complete, current contact information. Carry the card with you at all times.

At work, provide your personnel department and coworkers with your emergency contact information and update as necessary.

Let your vet know that your emergency contact people are authorized to take your animal in for medical treatment.

Buddy Systems and Petsitters:

Another idea: set up a buddy system with neighbors, so you can check on one another's animals in case something comes up. Exchange phone numbers, vet information and house-keys. Have a permission slip put in your vet file so that your vet will know who can authorize necessary treatment for your animals.

If you use a petsitter, provide him or her with a plan to be used to care for your animals in case of emergency.

Post Signs on Your Front Door:

Post 'in case of emergency' notices on your front door or most visible window listing how many and what kinds of pets you have. This will alert rescue personnel during a fire or other emergency. When you move, be sure to remove such notices from your former home and post them at your new residence.

It also helps to post an additional notice inside your front and back doors listing emergency contact names and phone numbers.

Bequests to Animal Charities:

On a related note, you may want, through your will or trust documents, to donate some of your money and/or other financial assets to charities that help animals. Here are a few pointers:

* When choosing which charities to support, do your homework. Make sure you understand the mission and goals of each charity and learn about its current activities. While it's common for charities to spend money on fundraising and administrative costs, consider the ratio of each charity's expenses. You can obtain enlightening financial information on most larger nonprofit groups through various resources such as www.guidestar.org and www.give.org. In addition, the nonprofit group Animal People, Inc. monitors the major animal welfare and protection charities on a regular basis, and issues Standards for Ethical Charities and Fundraisers. See their website at www.animalpeoplenews.org

* When choosing an executor, trustee, or personal representative for your will or trust, try to designate someone who shares your concern for animals, or at least someone who you can trust to respect and carry out your wishes. Explain your commitment to animals and make it clear that you want your assets to be used to directly help animals. Note special interest you have, such as supporting programs that actively work to reduce the population of companion animals through humane means such as sterilization...programs that actively work to fight animal cruelty...etc.

* Be sure to use the specific, official, legal name and current contact information for charities listed in your will.

* Remember that some animal charities might not be in existence at the time distributions are made according to your will and other estate documents. So if you have named several nonprofit charitable beneficiaries to receive specific or equal shares in your will, include language covering this possibility. For example, note that in the event that one or more of the listed charities no longer exists, that the sum total of the assets should be redivided among those remaining in existence. Also, you might want to research and specify alternate choices for beneficiaries, especially if you are designating only one or two charities in your will or trust. If you can trust the selection to someone else, you might add the wording, 'Should three or more of these charities no longer exist, my Executor (Personal Representative) or Trustee may, at their discretion, choose up to eight similar charities for such distribution.'

* Notify your chosen charities, so that they can inform you or your estate executor if their contact information or charitable status changes. Same goes for any charities mentioned in a life insurance policy.

* Some larger charitable organizations are able to accept gifts of stocks, mutual funds, personal property, even real estate. Some nonprofits have set up plans such as charitable gift annuities and pooled income funds, where you receive an income stream for the remainder of your life in exchange for your contribution of cash, stock, or other property. Upon your death or the death of any spouse or other beneficiary named in your trust documents, your contribution belongs entirely to the charity.

* A charitable remainder trust can be set up with you or another individual receiving regular income, with the remainder, or principal, of the investment going to your designated charity when the income interest terminates. In contrast, with a charitable lead trust, your chosen charity gets income for a set time period, and you or another noncharity beneficiary of your choosing receives the principal after that time period.

* Another tax-advantaged option is investing some of your assets in joint or pooled charitable trusts such as donor advised funds and community trusts. Most charitable annuities and trusts and pooled fund options are irrevocable. Consult a financial expert or attorney for details.

* Note that charitable gifts are usually valued at their fair market value at the time of the gift.

Related Reading:

Estate Planning, Wills, Online Legal Primer, Legal Resources, Pet-Related Will/Trust Language, Nonprofit Organizations, Forum, Euthanasia Provisions, Tax Considerations and More


Sample Language for Companion Animal-Related Provisions of a Will


Other Will and Estate Planning Resources for People with Pets





Organizations Providing Animal Care After Owner's Death




Petsitter Arrangements



Emergency Contact Notice for doors and Emergency Pet Care Instructions form for use with designated emergency caregivers. Contact the Humane Society of the United States at 1-800-808-7858 or www.hsus.org

Bequests...Leaving Assets to Charities
Background Details and Reviews for Specific Charities

BBB Wise Giving Alliance http://www.give.org

National Database of Nonprofit Organizations

Standards for Ethical Charities and Fundraisers

Articles about Making Bequests to Animal Charities









Books About Providing for Your Pets in the Future

When Your Pet Outlives You by David Congalton and Charlotte Alexander. Easy-to-use, up to date resource guide designed to help pet owners deal with one of their major, overriding fears: if something happens to them, what will happen to their companion animals? Covers planning for the chance if you are no longer there for your pet, choosing a caregiver and setting aside money for the pet's care. Combines personal stories with step-by-step information on how to prepare today, along with examples of legal documents, pet law specialists, pet retirement homes across the country and other resources.

PerPETual Care by Lisa Rogak. A concise yet thorough resource for making plans in case you ever become incapacitated or otherwise unable to take care of your pets.

All My Children Wear Fur Coats -- How to Leave a Legacy For Your Pet by Peggy R.Hoyt, J.D., M.B.A. Addresses issues related to estate planning for your pet and ways to memorialize and cope with the loss of a pet. To order a copy, visit www.legacyforyourpet.com


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Last Updated: April 26, 2018 (LET) PawSupport