Pets are cherished family members, but it's the rare owner who considers what will happen to a four-legged friend if the worst occurs. An owner's illness or death remains one of the top 10 reasons pets are relinquished, according to the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy.
For your pet to be cared for financially and physically after you're gone, your estate plan needs to include those arrangements. "Talk to your attorney, evaluate your state's laws, and assess your resources," says Steven Maughan, vice president of planned gifts and estates at the Humane Society of the United States. Many of the same estate-planning tools you'd use to take care of your human dependents can also protect your pets.
Take your will, for example. It could list a trusted caretaker for your pet, along with an alternative if your first choice falls through. You should set aside money in your will for your pet's care with an explanation of how the funds should be spent. For the amount needed, multiply the annual cost of care for your pet by its life expectancy and include extra funds for unexpected medical expenses. You may want to add a separate document, called a letter of instruction, describing your pet's routine, food and medication.
Even with those provisions, however, the caretaker is not legally obligated to follow your instructions, spend the money as you intended or send the pet to another caretaker that you've named. Once the money is distributed to the caretaker, it's an honor system.
Another downside of wills is that they require a costly and lengthy legal process. "A will is a ticket to probate court," says Rebecca Wrock, an estate-planning attorney at the law firm Varnum in Ann Arbor, Mich. "Everything is public record, and all heirs of the deceased are notified of proceedings so there is more opportunity for a gift to the pet to be contested." The average probate process in the U.S. costs about 10% of the estate, according to LegalZoom.
Probate can also take months, sometimes years. Without a designated emergency caregiver during that time, your pet could be rehomed or taken to a shelter and euthanized, says Anne Trinkle, executive director of Animal Alliance of New Jersey & Planned Pethood Spay/Neuter Clinic in Lambertville.
A pet trust, however, bypasses probate and provides more legal protections. Depending on your state's laws, you could set up either a revocable pet trust, which can be changed or canceled during your lifetime, or an irrevocable pet trust that can't be reversed. A pet trust can be completely separate or part of an existing trust that encompasses your other assets. The national average cost of a living trust ranges between $1,100 to $1500, compared with $10 to $600 for a simple will, according to LegalZoom.
Along with appointing a trustee to manage the trust's finances, you name your pet's caretaker (who could also serve as the trustee), any alternative caretakers, as well as an optional trust protector for added oversight of the trustee given that the beneficiary -- your pet -- can't defend its own rights. Unlike a will, the caretaker has a fiduciary duty to follow your letter of instruction if you include one.
If you can't find a willing caretaker, ask an an organization, an animal retirement home, veterinary school, animal sanctuary or rescue group if it will care for your pet after you're gone. Some may require payment for your pet's care. If not, include a donation to the organization in your will. Michael Ettinger, president of Ettinger Law Firm in New York, likes private animal sanctuaries. In one case, a client's dog was taken in by a pet hotel, which played back-to-back videos of the owner to comfort the grieving dog.
No matter which option you choose, make sure your pet's future caretaker agrees to take on that role. "We've received calls from people stunned that they were designated as a pet's caretaker," Trinkle says, so discuss the arrangement in advance. "And obviously, they have to be pet lovers."
Ford Recalls 45,000 Cars Over Faulty Door Latches
The Ford recall follows its 2020 recall for the same issue. Here's what to know.
By Jamie Feldman Published
Scammers Are Pretending to Be From Your Utility Company. Here's How To Shut Them Down
With scams in the utility sector on the rise during cold winter months, companies are spreading the word for customers to be on the lookout for fraudsters.
By Joey Solitro Published
Is a Medicare Advantage Plan Right for You?
Medicare Advantage plans can provide additional benefits beneficiaries can't get through original Medicare for no or a low monthly premium. But there are downsides to this insurance too.
By Jackie Stewart Published
What You Must Know About the Different Parts of Medicare
Medicare Medicare can be complicated but we've got you covered. Here is a quick guide to the different benefits provided through each part.
By Jackie Stewart Last updated
Retirees, It's Not Too Late to Buy Life Insurance
life insurance Improvements in underwriting have made it easier to qualify for life insurance, which can be a useful estate-planning tool.
By David Rodeck Published
Best Banks for Retirees
banking Kiplinger's 2023 list of the best banks for retirees.
By Lisa Gerstner Published
As the Market Falls, New Retirees Need a Plan
retirement If you’re in the early stages of your retirement, you’re likely in a rough spot watching your portfolio shrink. We have some strategies to make the best of things.
By David Rodeck Published
Retirees: Your Next Companion May Be a Robot
happy retirement Robots may help fill the gap left by a shortage of humans to help older adults live independently.
By Alina Tugend Published
Using Your 401(k) to Delay Getting Social Security and Increase Payments
retirement Your 401(k) can be a bridge from retirement to higher monthly income.
By Elaine Silvestrini Published
How Do I Stop Robocalls From Scamming Me?
retirement The scammers have automated their efforts to separate you from your money. We have ways to make it stop.
By Elaine Silvestrini Published