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Estate Planning for Your Pets

Recently, we were very fortunate to have attorney Rachel Schromen give a presentation at the clinic about estate planning for your pets. For those who couldn’t make it, she was kind enough to provide this article she wrote which covers the same material, which I’m posting here in its entirety. Planning ahead is so important and can give you peace of mind that your pets will be cared for if something happens to you!

Karen Christopherson, DVM CVA

“Even though pets are legally classified as property, they oftentimes mean much more – they are companions, friends and family.  It is not only important to address assets and beneficiaries in your estate plan, but also to address what will happen to your pets should they outlive you.  

As is true with other aspects of estate planning, only a legally enforceable document can ensure the continued care of your pet.  It is not uncommon for a pet to be left behind when someone dies, only to be surrendered to a shelter.  Even with promises made between you and friends or family members, numerous reasons can cause such plans to fail – allergies, pet exclusion from rental properties or changes of circumstance.  Luckily, you can plan for what will happen to your pets should they survive you through estate planning. 

Your estate plan can identify current pets, and also encompass any future pets.  It is entirely plausible that by the time your estate plan is utilized, you will have additional or different pets.  Careful drafting can prevent you from having to formally amend or create a new will every time you get a new pet.  

Plan for guardianship of your pet. 

One way to plan for the care of your pet is to include such instructions in your will or trust.  You can name the individual who you wish to be the guardian to your pet should your pet outlive you.  I always recommend discussing this arrangement with the named individual prior to putting such instruction in your documents, and ensure that they are willing and able to care for your pet should the situation arise.  It is prudent to always name a backup individual to care for your pet should your first guardian of choice be unable or unwilling to perform the duties required.  As an additional safety net, many individuals often instruct that an individual be responsible for finding a good home for their pet, or that their pet should go to a particular sanctuary, shelter or breed rescue should there not be anybody willing or able to care for them.  

Some rescues may require that an animal adopted through them be given back should that pet’s parent pass away.  If you adopted your pet through a shelter or rescue and believe this may have been a requirement, it may be prudent to have your attorney review any contracts you may have signed. 

You may also instruct that pets remain together, particularly if they were raised together or have bonded.  This may not happen automatically without specific instructions.  Oftentimes keeping pets together will require pre-planning to ensure the individual named to care for the pets is able to accommodate the request. 

Furthermore, instructions for care may be included in your planning.  Instructions can be instrumental in assisting the transition of your pet to a new home with a new caregiver. 

Funding for your pet. 

You may choose to leave money for the care of your pet in your documents as well.  If your pet has specific needs or expenses, you may wish to gift a certain amount of money to the guardian to provide for the care of your pet.  It is important to note that when money is gifted outright to the named guardian of your pet, you may instruct that it is your wish such money be used for the care of the pet, but it cannot be required.    Sometimes certain shelters will require a specific fee and such amount can be provided for in your estate plan.  

For more comprehensive planning, you may also wish to establish a pet trust.  Pet trusts allow for money to be set aside, and held in trust, to be used only for the care of your pet as long as they are alive.  This planning ensures assets are used solely for the care of the pet.  Backup provisions allow you to name individuals or organizations to receive any balance remaining in the trust at the time your pet(s) are also deceased.  Recently, I had a client retain me to draft a pet trust with her dogs, Diesel and Shep, in mind.  When she passes away, her dogs will go to a friend who has agreed to care for them.  Her assets will be held in trust, and can only be used to pay for care and expenses of the dogs while they are alive.  After the dogs have passed away, any money remaining in the trust goes in part to the friend who cared for them and in part to a local animal shelter.  Of course, the details of the trust will apply to any additional or future pets this client may obtain.”

Rachel T. Schromen is an estate planning attorney in St. Paul, MN and owner of Schromen Law, LLC.  She is one of the Top Three Best Rated Estate Planning Attorney in St. Paul, and has been voted Favorite Estate Planning Attorney by readers of Women’s Press Magazine.  In her free time, Rachel volunteers with her therapy dog, Mabel Mae, serving hospice patients.