I don’t like to think about death. Who does? But I must because two sweet Boston Terriers depend on me for care. With that in mind, I put together an estate plan to ensure Dolly and Spot do not end up in a shelter if I die unexpectedly.
To help keep your cats and other animals from entering the system in the case of your death — whether untimely or not — I turned my personal research into the following list of frequently asked questions about estate planning for pets. The answers include expertise from Gerry W. Beyer, a professor at Texas Tech University’s School of Law. He speaks frequently on the topic to laypeople such as me as well as to fellow lawyers and students at the school.
A: You can take the formal route with a pet trust, provision in your will, or a DIY pet protection agreement. You also can come to an informal arrangement with a family member of friend. Let’s look at the pros and cons of each of the four options:
1. Pet trust: This legal technique transfers ownership of your cats to a trust, which includes instructions for their care and money to pay for it. You name a caregiver, and you appoint a trustee to oversee that care and any related expenses. Two types of trusts exist: traditional and statutory. Traditional pet trusts are valid in all states, while statutory pet trusts valid in most states but not all.
2. Will provision: With this option, you simply include a provision in your will that leaves your cats to a beneficiary. You also can leave money for their care to the same person or another individual.
3. DIY pet protection agreement: Created by attorney Rachel Hirschfeld, available through LegalZoom, and valid in all states, this legal document allows you to specify a caregiver for your cats and leave money for their care. It falls between a traditional pet trust and will provision in terms of the amount of detail you can include.
4. Informal arrangement: You can skip all of the above and ask a trusted family member or friend to take your cats when you die.
A: If you opt for a traditional pet trust, you must name a trustee and a caregiver; the DIY pet protection agreement allows you to also name someone to handle financial matters relating to your cats. These can be the same person if you trust him or her with financial as well as pet-care matters. If you want the oversight a trustee provides, choose someone with financial and pet smarts for the role. That way, your appointed caregiver has a knowledgeable partner to share responsibility for your pets. This could be a family member of friend who cannot take your cats for whatever reason, but who wants the best for them.
When choosing a caregiver, no matter what option you choose, pick someone who will treat your cats as you did. Consider only those responsible enough for the task and with a stable home environment. In addition to naming backup trustees and caregivers, name a last-resort option, such as a sanctuary, pet retirement home, or service that finds loving homes for pets left orphaned.
A: Medical care, including preferred veterinary office, and expenses covered by the trust get detailed. So do more day-to-day areas, including:
The legal documents also should note whether the trustee and/or caregiver gets any compensation. Neither of these roles require payment — unless you opt for professionals — but including a salary of sorts or lump-sum payout makes sense. These people will take over care of your beloved pets, after all, and they deserve whatever thanks you can afford to give.
A: Whether the amount goes into a trust or gets paid through a pet agreement or will, it needs to cover not only regular care but also unexpected expenses. Determine the total amount you spend annually on your cats and consider their life expectancy, then include additional funds if you want “above and beyond” measures taken medically. Also, factor in any payments to the trustee and/or caregiver if you plan to make them.
Beyer cautions against leaving an unreasonably large amount for the care of your pets, as it could cause your family members to contest the trust or will. The court can reduce the amount, most notably done in the case of Leona Helmsley leaving her dog, Trouble, $12 million — a judge knocked it down to $2 million, poor pup.
A: Think of the above information as a starting point. Each situation has its own issues, and a legal professional can best advise you how to move forward, including whether to add a power of attorney to the above plans.
I will share one last tip I came across during my research and immediately followed: If you live alone, carry a card in your wallet and post a note at home that states who should be called to take custody of your cats if you die. Morbid? Yes. Vital to their health and well-being? Absolutely. Put that person’s number in your cell phone, and give that person a key to your home.
Also, here are some excellent resources for additional information:
Let’s hear from you, readers. Do you have estate plans in place — formal or informal — for you pets? Please share in the comments and offer any tips you have.
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