Have you ever wondered what will happen to your dog, cat, miniature pig, or goldfish after you die?
The love you feel for a beloved pet may be just as strong as the love you feel for a family member…sometimes a bit more if we’re being completely honest. The need to make sure that your furry or feathered family member is taken care of is born out of the unique bond created between people and their pets. According to numerous international studies, it has been proven that pet owners live longer and lower stress lives than non-pet owners. This is so widely accepted in the medical community that doctors sometimes recommend pets to their patients, and pet therapy is a growing offering at places like retirement homes and domestic violence shelters
However, even though you may see your pet as a tiny furry family member, the law sees him as a piece of personal property; no different than a car or piece of furniture (yikes!). This is the reason why pets cannot inherit in wills—simply put, you can’t gift property to property. Including your pets in your estate plan can ensure they get the care and love they need when you no longer around to give it. It can be unimaginable to think of your cherished pet left homeless or sent to a shelter if you die before they do.
As you think about a plan for your pet’s care, it is important to keep three questions in mind:
It is important to consider who is the best person to take care of your pet in the event that you die. It could be a close relative—a sibling, niece/nephew, cousin—or perhaps a close friend. But before you make any decisions you will need to have a candid conversation with whomever you choose. You will want to gauge their interest AND their ability to actually care for your pet. Consider whether they have any restrictions (mobility, housing, allergies, etc) that may keep them from being the best caregiver you want for your pet. That means that your favorite cousin Pam with four cats and a fear of feathers may not be the best choice to take care of your beloved parrot when you are gone.
After you have chosen an individual or family to take care of your furry or feathered friend, its time to consider how much money you should set aside to pay for their future care. The last thing you want to do is bankrupt your nephew because your 150lb dog eats 20lbs of designer kibble every day. To determine approximate costs, calculate the annual costs to care for your pet and then multiply that number by the pet’s remaining life expectancy. It also never hurts to add a little extra for medical bills as the pet gets older.
However, if you are thinking about leaving a larger amount of money to pay for most or all of your pet’s future needs — food, vet visits, grooming, medication, dog walkers, boarding, etc —you may want to consider creating a trust and assigning a trustee to manage the money for your pet. We will discuss this topic in more detail in the next section.
From making non-legal arrangements, creating a complex pet trust, or leaving your pet with an organization dedicated to taking care of pets after an owner’s death, there are numerous options when it comes to planning for your pet’s life after your death.
The easiest and most flexible arrangement for your pet does not require a formal legal document. If you fully trust the executor of your estate and the person who will care for your pet, simply tell your executor who should care for your pet when you die. As long as everyone involved is in agreement, there will be no problem for your pet to go to your chosen caretaker.
EXAMPLE: Sarah and Charles have been married for five years. They made simple wills leaving everything to each other and naming each other as executors of their estates. Sarah came to the marriage with a pet salamander named Jake. Charles is definitively not a fan of Jake and even refuses to go into the room that Jake’s cage is in. Sarah tells Charles that if she were to die, her brother, who loves reptiles, has agreed to take the salamander. Sarah is confident that no one else would want Jake. If Sarah were to die, Charles would give Jake to Sarah’s brother with no problem.
Note, if there is even a slight possibility of a disagreement about who should take care of your pet, it is a better idea to make legal arrangements through your will or a pet trust to solidify your wishes.
It is important to emphasize this point again: you cannot use your will to leave money to your pet. However, you can use your will to leave your pet — and money to care for your pet — to a trusted caretaker.
EXAMPLE: Chris was recently diagnosed with terminal cancer. He is concerned about what will happen to his six year old german shepherd, Macy. Chris talks to his brother Josh about taking Macy when he dies. Although Josh loves Macy and would love to reassure his brother that he would take care of his furry friend, Josh is a student and on a tight budget. Chris decides that he will use his will to leave Macy to Josh, as well as leave Josh some money to take care of Macy’s expenses. The clause in Chris’ will might look something like this: I leave my german shepherd dog, Macy and $1,500, to Josh Smith, with the hope that the money will be used for Macy’s care and maintenance.
This type of arrangement is legal in the sense that Macy will legally belong to Josh, like any other property. However, Josh will receive the monetary gift outright and be under no legal obligation to use the money for Macy’s expenses. If he used the money to buy a flat-screen TV, there would be no legal remedy.
A stronger, albeit more complicated option, is to set up a trust for your pet. With a pet trust, you can put money in a trust and assign a trustee to manage the funds. The trust will assign a trustee and caretaker—can be the same or two different people—who will have a legal obligation to care for your pet. If the caretaker fails to follow your instructions, he or she can be sued and an alternate caretaker assigned. Your trust will include:
The advantages of a pet trust are that it creates a legal obligation to care for your pet, it provides accountability for the money that you leave to the caretaker, and it allows you to establish a caretaking plan for your pet that will take effect if you become incapacitated.
If you’re not able to find a willing and able person to take care of your pet when you are gone, you are not without other options. Many programs across the country allow you to leave your pet to an organization dedicated to taking care of animals. For example:
In the end, the decisions you make will depend on what works best for your pet, your family, and your financial situation. But you will have more peace of mind knowing that you have ensured some sort of care for your pet after you die. As pet owners, the staff at Eldredge and Davis are compassionate of your desire to secure a plan for your pet. As experienced estate planning attorneys, they are well versed in the Florida law applicable to ensuring that your wishes regarding your furry or feathered family member are honored. Call our offices today for a free consultation.