Estate Planning for Pets

10/15/2017 11:12 pm ET Updated Oct 18, 2017

Have you made plans for your pets in case you die before they do?

Sadly, there are too many dogs and cats in shelters because their owners died and made no provisions for their care. This is not just a topic for the elderly to think about. Young singles with pets could face the same predicament. Estate planning for your pet doesn’t have to involve a lot of money.

I’m reminded of hotel tycoon Leona Helmsley, who left an estate worth $12 million to her beloved Maltese, “Trouble.” Helmsley’s brother was designated to take care of the dog, but he refused to do so. The dog’s ultimate caretaker used some of Trouble’s fortune to hire a security guard, since the dog was the subject of kidnapping and ransom threats!

And when Trouble finally died at age 12, the remaining balance went into a charitable trust to be distributed to causes designated in Helmsley’s estate plan.

That’s taking it to an extreme. However, there are some lessons here for all of us pet owners. (Full disclosure: I own two dogs and three horses. The latter definitely do not fall in the category of a “good investment.”) I’ve always been concerned about what might happen to them if I were not around. If you share concerns like that, here are a few things you might do to officially provide for their care.

A caregiver

The first step is figuring out who will be willing to take responsibility for your animals in your absence. It’s one thing for a friend to care for your pet while you go on vacation. It’s quite another thing to take on the responsibility — and the costs — for their remaining lifetime.

Whether you’re just asking a favor and promising some cash or setting up a legal entity, the critical element is finding the right person for the job.

If you can’t find an individual to keep your animal, you’ll want to find an organization that is willing to take on the care of your pet, or will assist in finding a good home for it. A no-kill shelter may be a last resort. But you’ll have more options if your pet comes with a “trust fund” to pay for veterinary care, grooming and other costs.

Let me make one thing clear: You cannot leave money directly to a pet. You can leave money and instructions to a caregiver, or you can create a trust that will spring into being upon your death.

Your estate plan

When you make your own estate plan, whether a simple will or revocable living trust, you can designate someone to receive your pets, just as you designate a beneficiary for your artwork, furniture, car or other personal property. You could also leave a sum of money to that beneficiary, with instructions that it be used for your pet’s care. There’s no way to enforce that, however.

Alternatively, you can also instruct the executor of your estate to pay for your pets’ ongoing cost of care. But if you have only a will, that involves keeping the “estate” open and obligated to those payments, prolonging a costly probate process. These distributions might be more easily made by the trustee of your revocable living trust — another reason to choose that form of estate plan over a simple will.

A “pet trust”

You may be better off setting up an individual trust for your pets, specifying the care that you expect them to receive. Pet trusts are legal in all states. You can “fund” the trust with a bequest from your estate, or with the proceeds of a life insurance policy left to the trust as beneficiary. The trustee and caregiver can be separate people. You’ll need to leave instructions about distribution of any remaining balance after the death of your pet.

You can specify the kind of care you expect the pet to receive and name a successor caregiver in case the person you choose is unable to act. But all of this should be done with an attorney, and creating the trust could be somewhat expensive.

More than two-thirds of American families have a pet, and most consider them to be part of the family. So if you have a pet of your own, make plans — just as you would for custodianship and care of your children — in case of accident or your untimely death.

It’s one worry off your mind. And that’s The Savage Truth.


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