by Alejandra Roca
photography by Pixabay

Pet Orphans: What Will Happen to Your Pets When You Die?

As a pet parent, you know how important it is to plan for your four-legged family members in the event that you become incapacitated or pass away. Who will take care of them and where will they go?

About 65 percent of American households include one or more pets, and if yours is one of them, you know that your pets are family. And like the rest of your family, they deserve for you to make them part of your estate plan.

If you don’t provide concessions for your pets in your estate plan, the best-case scenario is that your remaining family members won’t be quite sure what you wanted when it came to your pets; in the worst-case scenario, your beloved animals will end up in a shelter, abandoned or euthanized.

Talk to Friends and Family First

The safest bet is to discuss your plans for your pets with your children or other family members and friends. Find out who’s willing to serve as a caregiver and determine who’s most capable of providing the kind of care you would provide for your pets yourself. Let the person you choose know what you’d like to happen; then, put it all on paper, so there’s no misunderstanding that you aren’t here to clear up.

You’ll need to discuss:

  • Where your pets will stay
  • What types of foods and medications they need
  • What veterinary practice sees your pet
Pets in Wills

You can always add your pets to your will. Any estate planning attorney will ensure that your animals are provided for, and your instructions for their care and well-being are outlined effectively. However, remember that your will may have to wait until the courts settle on the manager of your estate – and that means your pet will most likely be in limbo for a while.

Instead, a pet trust is a better option.

In a pet trust, which is a legally binding agreement that provides for pet care if you become incapacitated or die, you can set up regular payments to a caregiver that covers all your pet’s expenses. It also helps ensure that your pet goes with the person you’ve chosen as the beneficiary of that trust. You’ll be able to decide on and name the trustee, as well as:

  • Outline how the trustee will use the funds in the trust
  • Include details on feeding, including amounts and kinds of food your pet should have
  • Clarify your pet’s medical needs and what you want to happen when your pet has a medical emergency
  • Outline your pet’s daily exercise routines
  • Describe whether crates or pet beds are appropriate
  • Set forth what you expect to happen to the money in the trust when your pet dies, which can include benefiting the caregiver or a charity of your choice

You’ll also want to outline plans for who will monitor the caregiver, and finally, you’ll need an end-of-life plan that notes what treatments are acceptable and whether your pet will be cremated or buried.

In most cases, it’s best to designate a separate trustee and caregiver in a pet trust. That way, they each hold each other accountable, and you can eliminate possible conflicts of interest.

How to Choose the Right Caregiver for Your Pet

Picking the right caregiver for your pet in the event that you’re not able to do it yourself can be tough. You need someone who’s not only capable but willing – and that means finding someone who will love and care for your pets the way that you did. You need someone who’s responsible and has a stable home environment.

The best idea is to name a primary caregiver and list at least one backup caregiver in the event that your first choice is unable to handle the responsibility as outlined in your pet trust. Only choose a sanctuary or pet retirement home as a last resort; if you don’t have any backups, you can also choose a service that finds loving homes for orphaned pets.

How Much Money Should You Set Aside for Your Pets in a Trust?

To determine how much money you should set aside in a pet trust, you should figure out how much you spend annually and consider your furry friend’s life expectancy. You’ll also have to include additional funds for emergency medical procedures and end-of-life treatments, as well as burial or cremation. To err on the side of caution:

  • Add three years’ worth of expenses to your annual pet care costs over the rest of your pet’s expected lifespan
  • The number of payments you’d like to give to your pet’s caregiver
  • Emergency funds for big-ticket procedures and veterinary care
  • End-of-life treatment funds, such as palliative care
  • Burial or cremation costs
Pet Insurance and Pet Lawyers

You can hire an attorney specifically to represent your pet in the event that you become incapacitated or pass away, but that’s entirely up to you.

However, pet insurance is almost always a good idea – even if you have an airtight pet trust. Insurance can help ensure that your pet’s caregiver gets your beloved animal the medical care he or she needs without worrying about the financial end of things; this is true whether the caregiver and the trustee are the same person or you’ve designated two separate people who each want the best for your pet.

Pet insurance can save thousands in medical bills, and while it may be a little costly up-front, it’s worthwhile if your pet develops a chronic condition or requires emergency care at the vet.

Key Takeaways When Planning Your Estate With Pets

Unfortunately, many people simply depend on friends and family to make room for their pets when they’re gone – but in the real world, it’s not always that simple. Taking care of your pet includes:

  • Setting up a pet trust, if you can
  • Including your pet in your will if you’re unable to set up a trust
  • Choosing a caregiver and getting his or her go-ahead to put the details in writing before your incapacitation or death
  • Finding pet insurance that will cover the unexpected