Including Pets in Your Legacy Plan

If you have a pet, I’m sure you’ve made plans for their care at some point. Maybe you were taking a vacation or had a busy workday and just wanted to ensure they were properly taken care of. Most of us don’t bat an eyelash at these forward-thinking plans for our furry friends, but we often forget about ensuring their long-term care in case something happens to us. 

Creating an estate or legacy plan for your pet ensures that they are physically and financially taken care of even if you aren’t here to do it for them. 

Here are some things to think about:

1. What are your goals?

Maybe your primary focus is ensuring that your pet goes to the right family member if something happens to you. Or maybe it is making sure there are funds allocated for the health needs of your pet. Just like with kids and guardianship, a legacy plan can outline specific caretakers who will be asked to step in should you become incapacitated or pass away unexpectedly. But just like we encourage clients to think about their own life insurance and long-term care insurance to protect their estates in case of the unexpected, there’s also pet insurance that can help you navigate major unexpected pet expenses. It’s important to think through what is important to you, and the needs of your pet. 

2. Do your goals involve specific people?

Are you concerned about ensuring that your pet is left in the care of someone specific? Do you need to make sure that your pet does not end up in the hands of someone specific? Or maybe you don’t have a specific person in mind, but qualifications for the type of person who would be asked to step in as caretaker!

If you do have specifics for the person or type of person you’d like to care for your pet, it is important that you create a plan to ensure that. You can do this by creating a Pet Trust, with a trustee you select, in your will. You could also simply leave your pet(s) to a beneficiary in your will, along with a financial gift to that person to aid in the pet’s care.

3. Do your goals involve financial needs?

Technically, pets are considered property, meaning you’re not able to leave funds directly to your pet. So, if your goals include funds to ensure the care of your pet, consider a Pet Trust. This allows you to leave funds to a trustee with legal obligations to ensure the care of your pet!

For example, maybe your dog is diabetic and requires daily insulin shots. In setting up a Pet Trust, you can allocate $15,000 to your sister, the trustee, to ensure that Fido always has insulin. In doing so, your sister can only use the funds for Fido and is legally obligated to seek out and maintain his care. 

Like any trust, a pet trust is funded with assets that are distributed according to the terms you outline in the trust documents. Think about including:

  • The name and address of a trustee (manager of the fund itself) and/or a caregiver (who will actually take ownership/care of the pet). They can be the same person, or different people if you’d like additional checks and balances. You can also name a successor trustee or caregiver, in case the first person named is no longer able at the time the trust goes into effect.
  • Pet name(s) and identifiers, in order to prevent fraud. This may include photos of your pet(s), microchip information, etc. If you are someone who always has pets/animals, and you want your plan to be timeless, you can leave specifics off of the trust and simply name a class of beneficiaries: i.e. the pet(s) or animal(s) owned by Your Name at the time of your illness/death.
  • Details about your pet’s standard of care. Does your pet eat a specific kind of food or require special grooming or other care? Detail them.
  • Instructions about how funds will be distributed/used. Will the caretaker get a set amount of money per month, or will they need to work with a trustee or trust company to get disbursements based on expenses? 
  • Instructions for what should happen when your pet(s) die. Will they be buried or cremated?
  • If you’re leaving more than might be needed for the pet’s care–or there’s a chance that you outlive the pet(s) outlined in your plan–consider leaving any extra funds to a pet-related charitable organization. That’s a way to eliminate any potential conflicts of interest (i.e. if a trustee knew they’d get leftover funds, they may short-change Fido’s care) and also do something good in Fido’s name.

4. Can I leave them to an organization rather than a person?

If you’d rather leave your pet to an organization rather than a person, many organizations have programs for their care. Some of these organizations include:

  1. Veterinary School Care Programs
  2. ASPCA
  3. Rehabilitation Programs
  4. Animal Sanctuaries 
  5. Local Animal Shelters

Be sure to do proper research into whatever organization you choose to be sure that they’ll take care of your pets and rehome them the same way you would!

5. What happens if you don’t have a plan for your pet?

Like other parts of your estate, what will happen to your pet follows what is directed in your will or trust. If there is nothing named, it is left to be distributed according to your state’s laws. So, if you don’t want Fido left up to a stranger, be sure that you make a plan for them!


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