They often sleep in our beds, go for long walks with us, and show us affection after a long, hard day. They may be our pets, but it’s no surprise that today many people consider their pets to be members of the family and treat them accordingly. In our case, my dog Lucy comes to the Reilly Law, PLC office most days and has her own dog bed and routine for her “work day.”
From a legal standpoint our pets are considered to be tangible property in the same way as our car or furniture. Those of us with cats know that our cats would strenuously disagree with this definition–they are not “property” nor are they really “owned” by their humans. Speaking perhaps just for myself here, I get the sense that my cats look at us as staff waiting on them and any legal concepts of ownership are mere trifles. Nevertheless, we should still be planning for their care if we are unable to take care of them.
Although many courts are now looking at pet custody in cases of divorce, their future upon your death remains up to the court – unless you properly plan ahead. In much the same way that parents designate guardians for their children should something happen to them, you should designate a guardian or caretaker for your pet. In order to ensure that your pets are accounted for the way that you’d like if you suffer a disabling illness or injury or after your death, there are two main things that you must do.
Choose a Caretaker
First you must establish who will care for your pets if something happens to you. This may be a direct relative like a spouse or child, or may also be another relative or a friend. Speak with them to ensure that they are on board to assume responsibility. If there is no one in your life whom you feel is the right person for the job, you may want to consider assigning an appropriate charity or humane society. If you wish to have a charity care for your pet post-mortem, it is often a good idea to make a donation to help the charity with care-related expenses.
Put Your Wishes in Writing
The second important part of estate planning for your pet is ensuring that you put your wishes in writing. There are several ways that you are able to do so:
Power of Attorney
You can include direction in a Durable General Financial Power of Attorney (DGPOA) about the temporary or long-term care of your pets. This can include guidance to your Agent on who you want to care for the pets, how they should be compensated, and any special provisions that you have in mind (though often those should be left in a letter or memorandum discussed below). The DGPOA provides your designated Agent with the legal authority to act and the ability to use your funds for the care of your pets. If you are able to resume caring for your pets you can easily do so without any legal formalities.
Will or Trust
To protect the interests of your pets after your death you can choose to put your wishes in your Will or Revocable Living Trust, which can be as easy as a simple statement that you wish to leave your pet(s), who you will identify, to some designated person or persons or charity. You may also wish to leave some money to your designated caretaker (identified by name) for the care of the pets using a Pet Stipend. This will also provide your Executor or Personal Representative some dedicated funds to provide temporary care for your pets until their new forever home can be found. The remaining Stipend funds will then be provided to the new caretakers to help defray their expenses.
You may instead choose to write a letter or memorandum if you are in a bind for time but need to get something down. This is considered as separate from any Will or Trust you have and its validity will be determined by the specific circumstances. This is also a good place to list any particular care issues such as food preferences, medication, veterinarian choice, etc. All of this will help your Agent or Executor provide the best possible care and outcome for your beloved companion animals.
The third and final option is to create a Pet Trust, which is a legal document that sets aside an amount of money for the care of your pet after you’ve passed. With a Pet Trust you are able to identify the pet and the caregiver, set aside money, and choose the type of care that your pet will receive.
The Trustee is legally responsible for ensuring that the caretaker is using the money as stated in the Trust. Since there may be a remainder of funds after your pet has passed, you must name a remainder beneficiary. Often a Pet Trust is used for expensive or long living companion animals such as horses, birds, and tortoises.
Reilly Law Can Help
To ensure that your pet is well cared for in the event that something happens to you, it is important to decide which plan you wish to implement. Reilly Law PLC can help you to decide which option is right for you. To learn more or to schedule a free consultation, visit us online or call us at 703-579-1936 today!