Planning for Pets

How to include furry, feathered or scaly friends in estate plans

When it comes to famous cat ladies, Taylor Swift might take the cake with her trio of fur babies, Meredith Grey, Benjamin Button and Olivia Benson. Of course, these aren’t typical kitties—Benson alone comes in with a net worth of $97 million, thanks to her appearances with her superstar mom in Keds and Diet Coke spots. But what happens if you and your pet are never, ever, ever getting back together? You don’t need Swift’s (or her cats’) money to successfully plan for your pet’s life after your incapacitation or death.

“When I bring up pets as part of the estate planning process, most clients either say, ‘Huh. I never thought of that’ or ‘Yeah, I already have someone in place who is going to take care of Fido,’” says Melissa Moser, an estate planning attorney with Moser Law in Norfolk. “I do typically caution the ‘I already asked so and so’ clients with this: Circumstances could have changed for the person you asked, or perhaps that person agreed but didn’t really think taking over care of your pet is something that would actually come to fruition.”

But, Moser says, there are options.

“The most basic level would be a pet agreement,” Moser says. “That is formalizing a request for someone to take care of your pet upon your death with a contract between both parties.”

The second tier is adding your pet to your will. “You could say in your will, for example, ‘I want so and so to have my pet, and I’m setting aside $5,000 for that care in a one-time transfer upon my death,”’ Moser says. “The problem, of course, is that there is no guarantee that the money will actually be used in that manner, as there is no ongoing court oversight after the transfer takes place. If you’ve chosen the right person, you hope that they do the right thing.”

The safest option is a pet trust. “With a pet trust, you have named a caretaker, a backup caretaker, even a third backup if you so desire,” Moser says. “The caretaker is going to be the person who provides the actual care for your pet, but then you have a trustee of the trust, who is not the same person as the caretaker, which offers a system of checks and balances to ensure the trust is running the way you wished it to.”

And if the trust outlives the animal?

“If your pet dies and there is anything left over in the trust, the residuary can pass to loved ones, or you can arrange to donate it to an animal shelter or any charity of your choice,” Moser says. 

You can also plan in the event of your incapacitation, or, Moser says, for something as basic as care of your pet while you’re on vacation. 

“We can incorporate a clause in a financial power of attorney that authorizes an agent to seek and obtain veterinary care for a pet, which can be effective immediately upon signing. That would enable the agent to seek care for that pet if, say, the principal is on vacation,” Moser notes. Alternately, she can help clients with a springing power of attorney, a document that becomes effective upon a principal’s incapacity. 

Moser admits it might sound a little outlandish to the uninitiated, but the statistics tell a different story. 

“In 2017, the pet industry in this country was valued at $70 billion,” she says. “But just last year, it reached $104 billion. The amount of money that people are spending on their pets in this country continues to rise, as does pet ownership—68 percent of households have a pet, so we’re talking about millions and millions of pets in America right now.”

And perhaps most telling, Moser notes, is that as the country’s birth rate decreases, pet ownership increases. “Looking at this from a generational aspect, people are considering their pets as if they are akin to children, relative to 50 years ago, when your dog was out on the farm and slept in the barn,” Moser says

So when’s the best time to get your estate planning—for your pets and otherwise—in order? 

“Yesterday,” Moser says. “No matter your age, finances or health. The amount of time and funds it takes to have your estate planning documents in order is miniscule in comparison to the emotional exhaustion your loved ones could have to go through in court to gain legal authority over your person or your estate in the event of your incapacity. You never know when something might happen. Estate planning is so important for you, but it’s also an incredible gift to your family and loves ones to have your affairs in order.”

As for Moser’s rescued Carolina Dog, Miss Magnolia, she’s taken care of. “She has her own pet trust,” Moser says. 

If you have any questions about how best to include your furry friends in your estate planning documents, an experienced Virginia estate planning attorney can help. For more information about this area, see our overviews of estate planning, trusts and wills.

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