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Planning For Pets
by Kaja Whitehouse

Legally Speaking, Fido Is Property, Too.

People with pets often assume that a family member or close friend will take on their companion animals when they die. In many cases, this would be true, especially when it's a shared pet--say, between a husband and wife. When one spouse dies, the other would automatically assume care for the pet. But this isn't true for all pet owners. And people who fail to plan for the worst may be placing their pets in a risky situation.

What Happens To Your Pet When Your Pet Outlives You?

If you have pets, you should understand the potential dangers that exist in not preparing for their care as part of your estate plan. According to the law, pets are nothing more than your property, not unlike a desk or a chair. So when you die, the heirs you've named to take your property would also inherit your pet. Whoever takes possession of your pet when you die becomes its new owner. The new owner has the right to do whatever he or she wants with it, including selling it, giving it away, or putting it in the pound.

There are many reasons why pet lovers might want to consider setting aside money for a pet and its new caregiver. This can be done through a will or a trust. Here are some reasons you might want to consider more extensive estate planning for your pet:

  • You live alone: Who will take care of my pet when I die?
  • You have a costly or exotic pet: Snakes, big lizards, certain birds, horses, pigs, and monkeys.
  • You have many pets: These days, it's not uncommon for people to have three or four dogs, or half a dozen cats--and they often want the animals to stay together for the rest of their lives.
  • Your pet is sick, or requires a lot of care: As pets age, they can require a lot of costly and time-consuming care.
  • You don't know anyone who could meet your standards for care: Even if your pet is healthy and appealing to everyone, you may provide it with extraordinary care that cannot be easily matched by anyone you know.

The will: A will is a fine strategy for people who have a caretaker in mind, such as a spouse or adult child. Keep in mind, however, that you are essentially passing the pet on as property along with some money. As such, there is no way to ensure that the money your leave will be used for the care of the pet. Again, the pet is property in the eyes of the law. The new owner can spend the money on the property as you requested, or not.

The trust: Historically, the law hasn't allowed people to establish trusts for their pets because a trust beneficiary had to be human. Laws are changing, however, and many states now allow residents to create trusts for the care of their pets. Some states even support enforcement of a trust on the pet's behalf. Before you establish a pet trust, be sure you know your state's law.

A court may, for example, be allowed to declare a trust excessive and reduce its funding. Your pet trust can become activated when you die or in the event that you become incapacitated and can no longer care for the animal.

With a pet trust, you can be very specific about the care you want to provide to your animal and what you want to happen to any remaining money after the pet dies.

One very important part of planning for your pet's care is to prepare written instructions for immediate care after you die or become incapacitated. Often, when someone dies, that person's home will be left to sit for quite a while--sometimes until well after the funeral, when the executor gets a chance to survey the property and the furniture.

If you have pets, you need to ensure that someone knows they're there and can quickly step in to care for them in your absence.

From the Book:

What Your Lawyer May Not Tell You about Your Family's Will: A Guide to Preventing the Common Pitfalls That Can Lead to Family Fights.
by Kaja Whitehouse

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