When Your Pet Is Your Heir

Call it one of the great hallmarks of pethood: seeing that your beloved pets are provided for in the event that you are not there to care for them.

What about your voiceless companions? Who will step in to shepherd your dogs, cats, lizards, birds, rabbits and goldfish should you cease to be? How will your pets be perceived in the eyes of the law? Can you assign them — as you do your children — to responsible family members or friends?

Forty-six states and the District of Columbia respect pets as living property and respect an allowance of assets if prepared as a pet trust. The other four — Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota and Mississippi — have no such provision, though they respect beneficiaries who are named in final legal documents.

So, what’s a pet trust? It’s a legal plan that a pet owner uses to assure that the pet has proper care after the owner’s death or if the owner becomes disabled. You can choose to make a pet trust while the pet is still alive (a living trust) or you can create a trust that becomes effective when you die by including the trust in your will (a testamentary trust).

A will does not take effect until you die and a court has validated it, but if you choose a living trust, it will go into effect the moment you’re incapacitated or instantly on your death. A testamentary trust can be indefinitely postponed if there is any objection to the probate of the will.

In your last will and testament or living trust, you can create a separate article to govern the pet trust, naming a trustee to portion out the funds necessary to provide for your pet’s well-being. Pet owners can outline their wishes regarding the income and principal to be used for each individual pet, or suggest the trust be restrictive and only provide money for the pet’s medical care.

Most people provide for a broad range of issues and allow the trustee to use the money for any reason for the nurturing and care of pets. After assigning a trustee or trustees to look after your pet, you can outline instructions within the will or inscribe a personal note to detail each pet’s preferences, such as what food, bones, and toys the pet enjoy, as well as delineate their medical care. In this personalized note, you can express your hopes for your pet’s rehoming should it be someone other than the trustee.

How can you determine how much to leave your pets? Let’s say we are researching for a dog. You can reference the internet for the average lifespan of your dog’s breed or a mix of breeds, project how many months remain in your dog’s life and then estimate the monthly cost of feeding and such extras as bedding and toys.

Consider your dog’s medical care. Speak to Fido’s veterinarian. Outline yearly expenses and project elder care — any expenses that could crop up in later years, like dental or eye care. Set aside a rainy day fund for emergencies like an occasional boarding.

Other useful ideas to set your mind at ease:

  • You can carry a pet alert card in your wallet.
  • You can place a notification sticker on your windows and doors to alert emergency personnel of the number and type of pets you have in your home. Indicate if any may be timid and hiding or aggressive to strangers.
  • You can create a pet dossier for someone to be aware of your pet’s dietary needs, medical history, vet info, habits and personality traits.
  • You can identify at least three potential caregivers to provide permanent or foster care.

Providing for your pets’ care after you are gone assures you that their needs will be taken care of during the remainder of their lifetimes.

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