What Happens to Your Pets if You Can’t Care for Them? 5 Things to Consider

Whether they have fur, feathers, scales, or are hairless, our pets are family cornerstones. For some of us, our pets are our only family! Even though they are close to our hearts, many of us do not have a plan to protect our pets should we die or something happens to us in the short or long term. This was my realization when I looked at them to snap a picture of the moment when they were peacefully coexisting. It occurred to me that I didn’t have a plan for my dog, Brutus and cat, Lola, should something happen to me and my partner. That’s when I decided to create an estate plan for my pets should something happen to us.  

If you already have an estate plan that outlines your future wishes, you may want to double check you’ve properly included any pets. If you don’t have anything in place at all, now may be a good time to create a comprehensive estate plan that also includes the care of your pets. 

No matter where you are in your estate planning journey, I wanted to share a few steps you can take to ensure your fur family is protected. But before we explore the four ways to protect your pets should you pass away, let’s first consider how the law regards pets.

Cat and dog laying side by side on rug

Legally, Pets are Considered Property

Throughout this piece, we’ll talk about companion animals, which are more commonly thought of as “house pets” who need daily care. Common examples of companion animals include dogs, cats, and birds. 

To start, within all 50 states of America, pets are considered property. In the world of estate planning and law, this is important to note so we can identify the appropriate ways to transfer property. 

Legally you cannot leave property to other property; for example, cash cannot be left to other cash. If you are going to leave property (i.e. a brokerage account or a home), it must be left to a person or entity. The concept of property transfer is important when thinking about the desire to leave a specific dollar amount or bequeath care to your pets. If you do not have legal arrangements in place, your companions could unfortunately end up in a shelter.

If you are unsure whether this applies to you, here is a list of situations indicating you should consider making arrangements: 

  • You live alone
  • You have multiple pets
  • Your pet(s) have special needs (i.e. medications or Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV))
  • You have a unique pet (i.e. Macaw or donkey)

Now that we’ve defined who should make arrangements, here are the four arrangements you can make to protect your pets.

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1. Making an Oral Agreement with Someone to Care for Your Pet 

While this is a non-binding arrangement, it is better than nothing to ensure your pet doesn’t end up in a shelter or someone else’s care. You can think of this as a handshake agreement to care for each other’s pets if something happens to one of you. 

There are a few important factors to consider when placing your pet in the care of others. The named person is preferably local and can get to your home quickly. A neighbor who you trust is ideal or someone within driving distance. If you name a sister who lives three states away, the pet may end up in a shelter until they can pick them up. While all shelters should not get a bad rap, they can be especially stressful for dogs and cats – especially if something has just happened to their primary caregiver.

2. Including a Provision in Your Will 

Remembering that property (i.e. pets) cannot own other property (i.e dollars), you can leave money to a person to care for your pet. You’ll want to consider the overall costs of caring for your pet such as food, annual vet visits, medications, grooming, and even pet sitters or a boarder. 

Instead of making a guess on costs, a good starting place is looking at historical spending for the past year. For some individuals, it also makes sense to consider paying a pet insurance premium and leaving money for the deductible as part of deciding how much to leave. Of course, no one can predict a pet’s life expectancy, but you’ll want to make your best guess to avoid passing a financial burden onto your named person. 

Whoever you name to care for your pet, make sure you genuinely trust them. Since there is no way to hold this person liable, you’ll want to know that if you leave them a specific dollar amount, they will use it to pay for the expenses they are meant for.

3. Pet Protection Agreement

This type of arrangement is a written document, however, it’s not as formal as a provision in your will or a pet trust, nor is it legally enforceable. A contract is created between two individuals that identifies a pet guardian, but without any monetary component. A signature is required to make it binding between the two parties. 

A pet protection agreement can be helpful when you need to enter the home of a pet owner and take a pet into custody before authorities send them to a local rescue or shelter. In an emergency, the named guardian simply brings the agreement to the authorities and shows them they are the official guardian and can take the pet into their custody.

You would primarily choose this agreement over a will or pet trust for emergencies (versus caring for the pet over an extended period of time). If you assume the caretaker is going to watch over your pet for longer, then you would also want to use a pet trust or will to provide funds for their care. 

4. Creating a Pet Trust

If you have an animal with likely longevity (i.e. an African Grey parrot), and/or the animal has unique care needs, a pet trust is something to consider implementing. Similar to other legal documents, an attorney will need to draft and implement these documents based on your state of residence. Note that a pet trust must be established for a pet already alive and cannot be redirected for future pets.

In your pet trust, you’ll have the option to name a caregiver for your pet, similar to other agreements we’ve already explored. The pet trust will also hold money for the pet’s care (i.e. vet bills, grooming, toys, etc.); this money can be held in cash or even invested if the timeline is long enough. The trust is taxed the same as any other irrevocable trust. Without getting into too many specifics here, note that an irrevocable trust is a separate tax entity and will need to file its own tax return. You should leave funds to pay any tax preparation fees in the future. 

If your pet has a long lifespan, you should name a backup caregiver for your pet if the first one is not able or willing to perform their duties. (Regardless of the pet’s longevity, this is also a good practice in general.) Next, the trust document will create a trustee who ensures the money is distributed for expenses directly related to the pet’s care (i.e. food, grooming, and medical bills). The trustee and caregiver should be different individuals.

At the end of the pet’s life, if there is any money left over in the trust, the funds should be redirected to a charity (meaning the trust is distributed to the American Mini Pig Association, for example, and not the caretaker’s personal use). It is possible to leave a small amount to the caregiver and trustee to compensate them for their time and effort. However, if the amount is too much, the pet’s wellbeing may not be the number one priority and instead the caregiver and trustee might be more focused on a pay day. 

5. Other Arrangements for Your Pet

Regardless of what documents you put in place for your specific situation, there are a few things to consider doing now to prepare for the unexpected.

Make Arrangements with Your Vet 

If you unexpectedly become disabled, you should have a credit card on file with your vet with a pre-authorized amount to charge. The credit card can pay for any routine maintenance, emergencies, or even boarding if the vet offers that at their practice. Boarding can be helpful in the event your named caregiver lives out of the area or is not available to care for the pet immediately.

Emergency Rescue Stickers

In the event of a fire or other emergency, police officers and firefighters may not know to look for your companions in your house. That’s why it’s important to place a safety sticker in a window, door, or on a refrigerator. I know my cat would dash under the bed if there were loud noises or sudden chaos; in that moment, rescue workers would not know to look for or save her from the emergency. You can purchase a pack of stickers online for an affordable price (or they’re often available for free at your vet’s office.)   

Keeping Your Pet Loved Ones Safe 

No matter what your family of pets looks like, make sure these family members are protected from unexpected life disruptions. A little pet planning can ensure your loved ones live a long and happy life, even if you can no longer be around.

If you’ve been looking for a financial advisor to help you manage the details of building your best life, reach out and schedule a call today to see how Abacus might be able to help.


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