About Author: Peggy R. Hoyt, J.D., M.B.A., B.C.S, The Law Offices of Hoyt & Bryan
Planning for your four-legged loved ones can be just as challenging as planning for your two-legged loved ones. A typical question is, “Do I need a trust or a will?” The answer is, “It depends.”
When estate planning for your pets you’ll want to consider the following: How many pets do you have? What types of pets do you have? Do any of your pets have unique care requirements (ie. health concerns, unusual behaviors, etc.) that require special planning? Where do you want your pets to live – at your home, with a friend or loved one, at a sanctuary? What financial resources will you provide to ensure your pets are adequately provided for? Who will be responsible for providing daily care? Who will be responsible for the oversight and administration of the assets left for the benefit of the pets? These are just a few of the questions that need to be answered when creating a plan for your pets.
No two pet owners will have the same planning goals for their pets. I want my pets to stay in their own home with a pet caregiver who will live on the premises. Others may be comfortable with a new forever home for their pets. Some will prefer a sanctuary environment for their pets where they live among many other pets. These are just a few of the issues and concerns that must be considered to create a plan that ensures your pets will be properly cared for when you are unable to do so yourself, either through natural disaster, disability or death.
The first step in planning for your pets goes beyond the legal design of a pet estate plan. The first step is to identify those persons or organizations (pet caregivers) that will have physical custody of your pets and will provide them with lifetime care. Much like planning for minor children, before any of the financial considerations are addressed, you have to feel comfortable with the selection of your pet caregiver. For some, finding the right pet caregiver can be a challenge.
You may consider family or friends, but what do you do if you can’t think of anyone suitable for this important role? In that case, you could consider a pet sanctuary or perpetual care organization. One thing you should never do is assume that family or friends will be willing to provide lifetime care for your pets. The sad reality is that more than 500,000 loved pets are euthanized annually because their pet parent died or became disabled.
When choosing a caregiver, here are some important factors to consider: Is this person responsible and committed to caring for your pets for the rest of their lives? Does the person already have their own pets? Will the new pet cause issues for your pet or the pets who already reside there? What plans has your pet caregiver made for their own pets if something happens to them? Once you’ve selected an appropriate caregiver, never take for granted their willingness to serve; sit down and discuss the important role you have in mind and then, always have one or more backup caregivers.
If you are choosing a sanctuary or perpetual care organization, you’ll also want to do a thorough investigation. Are you able to review their financials to ascertain their financial stability and long-term ability to provide lifetime care for your pet? Are you able to visit the facility and see first-hand the type of care provided, as well as the environment where your pet would live? Be sure to have your attorney review any agreement you are asked to sign, before signing.
You will also want to consider how much money to leave for the lifetime care of your pets. If your pets are staying at home, then you’ll have the added expense of maintaining the property and the home. In all cases, you’ll want to consider compensation for your caregiver and providing sufficient resources for the lifetime care costs of your pets. How much money is enough? Only you can answer that question. First, consider how much you spend to care for your pets now. Then, assume they will live for an extraordinary amount of time. Do the math and then add a bit more for extra insurance in the event of a catastrophic illness. Life insurance and retirement plans can be ideal assets to generate resources for lifetime pet care.
There are lots of choices when planning for pets. Some pet parents choose to leave a fixed sum of money and their pet to a trusted pet caregiver. This choice has the greatest risk as there is no way to ensure the funds are used for the proper care of the pet. Others will want more certainty and elect to create a Pet Trust for the lifetime care of the pets. Pet Trusts can be included in your Last Will, as part of a Revocable Living Trust or as a separate Pet Trust. There are pros and cons for each choice. I prefer the independent, separate Pet Trust for a number of reasons, not the least of which is immediate access to the resources necessary to care for the pets.
If you create a Pet Trust, selecting a trustee to manage the money for your pets will also be a critical part of your plan. Your trustee has the responsibility of making sure that your wishes with regard to the care of your pets and the distribution of your money are followed. The trustee can be the same person as the pet caregiver, but this is not always recommended because it can create a potential conflict of interest. The best choice is a professional trustee such as a certified public accountant, attorney, trust company, or charity qualified to act as trustee. Animal Care Trust USA is the nation’s only charity dedicated to acting as a trustee for Pet Trusts. You can get more information at ACT4Pets.org
Planning for your pets doesn’t just mean considering what will happen if you die. You also have to consider the welfare of your pets in the event of your disability or a natural disaster. What if a hurricane forces you from your home and you are unable to take your pets with you? Have you made any provisions for how your pets will be cared for? What if you have to go to the hospital or a nursing home for an extended stay? Is there someone ready who can step into your shoes until a temporary or permanent replacement home can be found?
Consider creating a notebook for your pets that details all their important information, including the pet’s name, description (including picture), age, health, special instructions for care, veterinary information, short-term pet caregivers, etc. This way, if the information is needed in an emergency, the notebook is always up to date with critical information. By keeping relevant information up-to-date on behalf of your pets, you can also provide guidance regarding their future care in the event your pet is aging or has become medically compromised and may need special care that could include end-of-life hospice care or humane euthanasia. Most importantly, you’ll want to consider where and how your pet will do best.
On a mission to protect your pet’s life? Read “All My Children Wear Fur Coats – How to Leave a Legacy for Your Pet”, it addresses the need for planning for pets as well as providing checklists and other useful information for creating lasting pet legacies. You can order a copy from Amazon or at HoytBryan.com.
Peggy R. Hoyt, J.D., M.B.A., B.C.S., is a Board Certified Specialist with the Florida Bar in both wills, trusts and estates, and elder law. She is an author, speaker, and host of the weekly podcast, All My Children Wear Fur Coats which can be found on Buzzsprout, and the founder of Animal Care Trust, USA, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to keep loved pets in loving homes. Peggy’s newest book is an Amazon bestseller – 101 Ways to F$$k Up your Estate.