Put a Plan in Place to Ensure Pets' Care

Spell out your wishes for your pets in case they outlive you.

If you're a pet owner, you probably consider your dog, cat or cockatiel a member of your immediate family. But chances are, the estate plan that so carefully provides for your other loved ones leaves your pet out in the cold.

Only 17% of dog or cat owners have taken any legal steps to provide for pets' care after their death, according to a recent survey by the ASPCA. Most people simply assume that a friend or relative will take care of their pet after they're gone, animal advocates say, and many pets wind up in shelters when such ad hoc arrangements fall through. "A lot of people just take it for granted that the pet is going to be taken care of, and they don't do any planning," says Hyman Darling, an elder law attorney in Springfield, Mass.

Yet pet owners are gaining more legal options for planning their pets' future. Nearly all states now have laws specifically allowing trusts to be created for the care of an animal. And the ASPCA late last year teamed up with legal Web site LegalZoom.com to promote the use of the Pet Protection Agreement, a contract between pet owners and designated guardians that provides for continuing care.

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If your pets have complex care needs, and you're planning to leave a substantial sum of money to provide for them, talk to an estate-planning lawyer about whether a stand-alone pet trust is appropriate. This type of trust can take effect if you're incapacitated, not just after your death. You can name a trustee to manage the funds and a different person to act as the pet's caregiver, providing for checks and balances on how the money is used.

The trust can spell out the exact care to be provided, including how often the pet should go to the veterinarian and what type of food the pet should eat, says Shirley Whitenack, elder law attorney in Florham Park, N.J. Owners can also name a beneficiary, such as a charity or relative, to receive any assets left over after the pet's death.

A pet trust can cost $1,500 or more to set up, and it makes the most sense for owners leaving $50,000 or more for their pet's care, Darling says.

For the vast majority of pet owners, however, a Pet Protection Agreement can provide all the planning required at a fraction of a trust's price, animal advocates say. Like the stand-alone trust, the agreement is effective if you're unable to care for your pet as well as after your death, and it can include details about the type of care to be provided. The agreement may include money designated for the pet's care, but that's not required. Your designated pet guardian must sign the agreement to make it effective.

Owners can complete a Pet Protection Agreement at LegalZoom.com. The cost is $39 to $79, with the more expensive versions offering free revisions or secure electronic storage of the document.

The Cost of Rover's Future Care

When considering how much money to leave for your pet's care, tally the animal's food, grooming, veterinary and other basic costs, and multiply that amount by its remaining life span. Consider leaving an additional cushion to cover higher medical costs as the pet ages.

Don't rely on your will to provide for your pet's care. The will only takes effect after your death, and it can be held up for weeks or more in probate—leaving your pet in limbo. But your will should mention your pet estate-planning documents, says Rachel Hirschfeld, the New York City animal-law attorney who created the Pet Protection Agreement. In her own case, she says, her will mentions the pet trust and Pet Protection Agreement that provide for her cat and two dogs.

If you do nothing else, put together a "pet dossier"—a file of information on your pet's food preferences, medical conditions, medications and veterinarian, says Kim Bressant-Kibwe, ASPCA's counsel for trusts, estates and planned giving. If you haven't found a permanent caregiver, she says, "identify at the very least a temporary caregiver who can come in if you go to the hospital" and feed your pet. And consider carrying a "pet alert card" in your wallet that states that you have pets at home and gives the contact information of someone who can care for them.

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Eleanor Laise
Senior Editor, Kiplinger's Retirement Report
Laise covers retirement issues ranging from income investing and pension plans to long-term care and estate planning. She joined Kiplinger in 2011 from the Wall Street Journal, where as a staff reporter she covered mutual funds, retirement plans and other personal finance topics. Laise was previously a senior writer at SmartMoney magazine. She started her journalism career at Bloomberg Personal Finance magazine and holds a BA in English from Columbia University.