There is no doubt that pets occupy a special place in our hearts, especially cats and dogs, though many pet owners share an affinity with exotic or less traditional pets as well. These include turtles, birds, iguanas, horses, hamsters, snakes, and lizards. Regardless of the type of pet, you may want to consider estate planning for your beloved animal to ensure it is taken care of by someone whom you trust if something happens to you.

There are two main ways your pet may be cared for after your passing. You can designate someone as caretaker or name a facility in your will such as a dog retirement home (yes, they exist) and leave certain funds to it. The second method is to establish a trust.

Naming a Pet in Your Will

A will allows you to leave your assets to whomever you designate. People typically leave money, cars, coin collections, and other property to family members and others. Some people (most famously, Leona Helmsley) have also tried to leave money to their pets as well. This may sound crazy, but if you have a pet, you know how much money it takes to properly care for them. So what do you do?

Unfortunately, you cannot leave money directly to an animal. This may sound cold, but in the eyes of the law, animals are personal property, with all the same rights (or lack thereof) as your toaster. Animals have no legal right to own another piece of property. If you leave property to your dog, that property will pass instead to your next heir under the laws of intestacy.

When crafting your estate plan, you will want to give special thought to who will inherit your pets. You may want to consider leaving that person some money for the pet’s care. The problem, however, is that a person who inherits your pet has no legal obligation to keep it or provide it with the same high level of care that you always have.

Creating a Pet Trust

The best way to ensure your pet will continue to receive the level of care you want it to receive after you pass away is to set up a pet trust. Most states permit the creation of a pet trust, including Colorado. The trust holds money for the care of any pets you own at the time of your death. The trust terminates after your pets die.

When setting up a pet trust, you need to:

  1. Name a first choice and alternate guardian to serve as your pet’s caretaker. Be sure these individuals agree to take on the responsibility.
  2. Keep the amount of money you set aside for your pets’ care reasonable. Your human heirs may not appreciate having their inheritance reduced for the benefit of an animal. An excessive gift to a pet raises the chance that a disgruntled heir will take the matter to court.
  3. Provide for the remainder of the funds to be distributed to whomever you designate.
  4. Provide that the pet be taken care of by the named caretaker in the event you become incapacitated.
  5. Leave detailed instructions for the pet’s care and a description of its idiosyncrasies so that there are no surprises if the animal becomes unusually agitated under certain conditions or situations.

Your instructions should include the following:

  • Medications, diet, brand of food and particular foods the pet likes
  • Alternate living arrangements if the caretaker becomes incapacitated
  • Name of the veterinarian office where the pet was treated and where its records are kept-you may want to inform the vet that you named a caretaker

Estate Planning for Pets? Consult Trusts and Estates Attorney Dan McKenzie

You can provide for the care of your pet but be sure that your estate plan is well-crafted so that adequate instructions and funds are set aside for your pet’s well-being. I am a Denver trusts and estates attorney who has tailored estate planning for individuals and families that have included provisions and trusts for pets. I would be happy to discuss your goals, expectations, and desires, and how best to accomplish them while minimizing tax consequences, avoiding probate, and preemptively addressing any challenges to your will or trust arrangements.