If You Die Unexpectedly, What Happens to Your Cats?


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.

Estate planning for pets FAQ

Q: What are my options?

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.

  • Pros: You have the most control over the care of your cats and the money spent with a traditional pet trust, as the caregiver and trustee are under a legal obligation to follow your instructions. A statutory pet trust includes less detail, allowing state law to back up your wishes, and it might be sufficient in states where valid if you do not foresee family members contesting the trust. Also, if you opt for a living pet trust, as opposed to one that kicks in after you die, you provide for your cats if you become unable to care for them yourself because of serious injury, illness, or advanced age.
  • Cons: You must use a legal professional and pay the bill that comes with this expertise, as well as fund the trust upon creation and pay for any start-up and administrative fees. But that might not be a “con” for some. Beyer points out that if you already have an estate plan in the works, “Adding a pet is typically very inexpensive. Unless you have unusual instructions, it would not add much to the overall cost.” He also points out that having an estate plan in general saves your survivors considerable money. A typical estate plan can cost from $500 to $2,000 to create, depending on where you live.

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.

  • Pros: A will that includes provisions regarding pets can cost less than creating and administering a traditional pet trust.
  • Cons: The person you leave your cats to does not have to follow any instructions you provide, as they are not legally enforceable. Unlike with a pet trust, you cannot distribute money for care over time — it comes as a lump-sum payout — or ensure that the money gets spent as directed or on your cats at all. And a will must go through the probate process (the administration of it after you die), leaving the care of your cats up in the air during that time. Also, since a will goes into effect only upon your death, it cannot provide care for your pets if you become seriously injured or ill, unlike a traditional pet trust.

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.

  • Pros: It costs much less — between $39 and $79 — than establishing a traditional pet trust or drafting a will. You simply create the documents yourself online and sign them. Like a traditional pet trust, it can apply if you are living but unable to care for your cats. Unlike a traditional pet trust, it does not require funding upon creation.
  • Cons: Geyer says such an agreement is better than doing nothing, but he recommends giving serious consideration to going to a skilled estate planner, preferably one who has experience with pet trusts, so that everything gets done correctly and you get a comprehensive estate plan. “A lawyer will ask all of the relevant questions and take all of the normal estate planning steps that keep the likelihood of contests [people challenging the documents after your death] low,” he says.

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.

  • Pros: It costs nothing to come to such an arrangement, though you might want to treat your family member or friend to a lunch over which you discuss the plan and also leave them funds to ease the burden of taking over the care of your cats. You should ensure that beneficiaries of your estate understand your wishes and will not put up a fight for your pups, too.
  • Cons: You have zero control over the care your pets receive after you die. Also consider what would happen if your family member or friend were to die before your cats. Who would take over their care? A traditional pet trust and the DIY pet protection agreement allow you to name backup trustees and caregivers.

Q: Whom should I leave the care of my cats to when I 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.

Q: What instructions should I include in a pet trust or pet protection agreement?

A: Medical care, including preferred veterinary office, and expenses covered by the trust get detailed. So do more day-to-day areas, including:

  • Food and treats
  • Exercise
  • Grooming
  • Crates and beds
  • Pet-sitting
  • Monitoring of the caregiver
  • Funding or reimbursement process for expenses
  • Burial or cremation

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.

Q: How much money should I set aside for care of my cats?

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.

Q: What else do I need to consider?

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:

  • ProfessorBeyer.com — In addition to the above information, Beyer offers resources on his website, including links to each state’s laws regarding pet trusts.
  • LegalZoom — Here you will find the DIY pet protection agreement as well as other information about estate planning for pets.
  • Nolo.com — This legal website offers excellent info on estate planning for pets.
  • HumaneSociety.org — It offers a helpful fact sheet about providing for your pet’s future without you.

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.

Looking for more stories about pet parenting? Check these out:

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