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Estate Planning for your Pet

BY REBEKAH OLSEN

Publisher’s Note: The information in this article is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. We advise contacting an attorney for help in preparing the appropriate planning for your pet.

My dog, Midas, is getting older. His muzzle is turning grey and his hips are becoming stiff. Not to mention, we’ve been visiting the vet more frequently.

From a benign epilus in his mouth to a lump on his hock, my husband and I are prepared to care for our dog. And as pet parents, we usually assume we will outlive our pets, given their shorter life spans. But, what if our dog outlived us? Who will take him to the vet? Who will disguise his pain pills in treats? And who will snuggle into his dog bed because he can no longer make the jump into ours?

My husband and I understand that life is fleeting and uncertain. Recently, however, we also realized the uncertainty of our dog’s fate should we become incapacitated or die. According to the American Humane Association (AHA), ten percent of dogs are relinquished because of a caregiver’s death, and only about 35 percent of dogs that enter animal shelters are ever adopted. So if we don’t have a plan in place, our beloved Midas could go from a spoiled-rotten family member to a prolonged shelter stay or worse.

“Everybody knows they need to plan for what’s going to happen next,” says Rachel Schaffer, owner of Schaffer Law Firm in Nashville, “But a lot of people just don’t want to have that conversation.”

Sure, talking about death is uncomfortable, but it’s necessary. Your pets don’t have a voice to express what they need, and should you pass before them, neither will you—unless you plan ahead. If you’ve been keeping up with our recent magazine issues and blog, you may have read our article on how to prepare for your pet’s death through veterinary hospice care. Now, we want to discuss how to prepare for the event of your own passing.

Legally, pets are considered property, so in the event of a pet guardian’s death, the pet is passed to either a named beneficiary or the next living kin. Often, that next of kin isn’t prepared to take on the responsibility of a pet, and may decide to surrender the pet to a shelter or rescue if they see fit.

“We currently have 16 dogs in our program who we know are here because owners either passed away or became seriously ill,” says Zina Goodin, president of Old Friends Senior Dog Sanctuary in Mount Juliet.

One such instance is Bently and Cookie, a bonded pair of dogs left at a local animal control after their guardian passed away. Goodin recalls, “They were terrified and shaking. Bonded pairs are the most difficult dogs to place; add that to being seniors and afraid, and they barely stood a chance.” The pair were taken in by the sanctuary in 2014 and have been living there since.

Understanding Pet Trusts

Around the 1990’s, pet guardians became frustrated in their attempts to leave money to ensure their pets were cared for in the manner they were accustomed. The trusts, or documents that dictate how your property should be handled, were invalid because property (your pet) cannot legally own property (the money in the trust).

“But the law is recognizing that people do really care about their pets, and there needs to be some planning in place, just like you would if you owned a house or really expensive jewelry,” says Schaffer.

As a result, states began to enact pet trust funds, which would allow a person to set aside money and instructions for the care of their pets. A pet trust is a legal agreement providing for the care of one or more companion animals in the event of the trustor’s (pet guardian) disability or death. Generally, a trustee will hold property (money for your pet’s care, for example) for the pets. The trustee can then give payments to the designated caregiver on a regular basis or predetermined schedule.

Tennessee enacted the law in 2004 with a caveat that the trust cannot last longer than ninety years, which may be an issue if you own a sea turtle. 

According to Schaffer, a will is also a good option for people who don’t have complex instructions or a sizeable estate. Both documents direct the distribution of your property, but a will only goes into effect after you die, while a trust takes effect as soon as you create it.

“In the absence of a will, it’s basically the government telling you where your stuff goes, whether you like it or not,” says Schaffer, “With a will document, we can define how that’s going to go, and you have a voice in the afterlife.”

In a trust or will, you can leave instructions for how your pet should be cared for and distribute funds to cover the cost of vetting, food and overall quality of life. But, the most important piece of the puzzle is assigning a caregiver. While your family or friends may love your pet, there’s a distinct difference between short visits and caring for your pets indefinitely. Enacting a trust or will forces you to start the conversation with your ideal caregiver to see if they’re up to the financial and physical challenge.

While we cannot legally advise you on how to create your will or trust, we have gathered some basic guidelines you can keep in mind.

Where to Begin

Setting up a trust or will for your pet is not as complicated as you may think, but for a will or trust to be valid, the document must comply with certain rules and have specific language, which varies from state to state, so you should first seek legal advice.

Schaffer says that most estate planning attorneys (including herself) can assist you, but you can also contact local law offices to see if they have experience with writing pet trusts. If you don’t plan to leave a substantial amount of money or know your family won’t dispute the agreement, you can explore the affordable “Pet Protection Agreement” by legalzoom.com, starting at $39.00.

Who to Include

Displaced owners in Hurricane Katrina often unwillingly left their pets behind, only to discover later that they had been adopted out because of an absence of ownership information. Since pets are legally considered property, your pet trust or will should establish the owner of the pet. Your trust can then act as a proof of ownership before or after your death.

To prevent the trust illegally extending to a pet that isn’t yours, you should identify and describe your pets. But Schaffer suggests if you plan on adding more pets to your family in the future, you can avoid rewriting your will or trust by stating the document covers any existing or future companions.

“I like people to have a first and alternate caregiver, and a first and alternate finances person,” says Schaffer. “[The caregiver and trustee] can be the same person or different. The caregiver might not be the best with money or someone you know very well.”

For example, for our dog, we’d want a caregiver who has experience with his breed, and this most likely wouldn’t be someone we know very well. Because of this, we’d establish a trusted family member to be the trustee who would distribute the funds and oversee the care, while the caregiver would keep him and carry out the instructions for his care.

“If there’s abuse of that trust, for example the caregiver abuses the animals, then the trustee can step in and take [the pets] way, just like with a child,” adds Schaffer. “That’s why you have that check and balance system with the trustee figure.”

What to Include

In addition to naming the owner, pets, trustee and caregiver, you want to leave detailed instructions about the care of your pet. Here are a few things you may consider including:

- Describe in detail your pet’s standard of living and care

Determine the amount of funds needed to cover costs and how they will be distributed

Provide instructions for diet (restrictions, preferred brand of food, feeding schedule)

Detail how vetting will be handled (frequency of vet visits and preferred veterinarian)

Require regular inspections of your caregiver’s home and your pets

Provide instructions for the final disposition of your pet (cremation or burial)

You can be as specific or as general as you’d like in your trust or will, but at the very least, it’s important to make sure the caregiver has the information they need to successfully care for your pets.

Dogs, cats, rabbits and most companion animals only live up to around 15 years old. So, to us humans who lead much longer lives, thinking about the possibility of dying before them can be difficult. But, as Benjamin Franklin said, “Nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes”.

So, why not take some time today, or in the near future, to be certain of your pet’s quality of life if you were no longer around to guarantee it?

Rebekah Olsen lives in Memphis with her husband, Matt, and their Cane Corso, Midas. She’s a professional writer and wordsmith, and you can connect with her at www.rebekahoslen.com. She is a regular contributor and blogger for Nashville Paw.

Publisher’s Note: The information in this article is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. We advise contacting an attorney for help in preparing the appropriate planning for your pet.

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