Even a well-drafted will or trust can frequently overlook some of our most important family members, our pets. Shelter employees report many horror stories about pets who are simply dropped off after the death or illness of the owner and end up being put to sleep. Here are five tips to make sure that your animals do not suffer after you are gone.
1. Don’t Assume That Everything Will Just Work Out. As with most things, failing to plan is planning to fail. You can’t simply assume that your pets will end up in the right home after you die. Too many pets end up being euthanized in shelters because friends or family members simply can’t or won’t take care of the animal. Now is the time to think about what should happen to your animals if you can no longer care for them. There are many options to safeguard your pets if something happens to you if you plan ahead.
2. Specifically Identify A Series of Future Guardians. Your will or trust should specifically name the people who you want to take your pets after your death (or incapacity). It is advisable to discuss this with them before you name them in the document, and it makes sense to name some backups in case your first choice can’t or won’t take the animals when the time comes. At a minimum, the document should specifiy that the Executor and/or Trustee must find a suitable home where the pet will be properly cared for.
3. Consider A Bequest To Offset the Cost of Future Care. Food and veterinary care are expensive and only getting more so. Not everyone has the resources to care for animals, especially if your pets have serious medical issues arise. Consider a cash gift to accompany your pets to their new home. How much? It depends on the age, life expectancy and medical condition of the pet, but an average amount in many wills and trusts that I draft is $5,000 to 10,000 per dog or cat, and much more for large animals such as a horse.
4. Make Sure Pets With Special Needs Have Special Plans. Does your animal have “special needs,” such as medical conditions requiring ongoing treatment or behavioral problems that you can handle but that others might find problematic? Does your pet have an unusually long life expectancy? Some birds and reptiles can live for 100 years. Have you made plans that take into account these special needs? There are many charitable organizations that can help you make plans for the ongoing future care of such animals.
5. Consider A Pet Trust. Since 2008, California law expressly permits a pet trust in the probate code, California Probate Code Section 15212. This arrangement, frequently set up as part of a more comprehensive estate plan, involves setting aside a sum of money that will be managed by a trustee for the care of your pets, typically for their lifetime. You can be very specific about the kind of care that your pet should receive (food, exercise requirements, veterinarian treatment). The trustee need not be the same person as the caregiver, to whom the trustee would be distributing funds and verifying that the pet was receiving proper care. In my experience, this type of arrangement typically only makes sense for larger sums ($50,000 and up) given the expenses associated with administering the trust by the trustee, but individual circumstances vary widely.