Published in: Banks | Aug. 16, 2019

What Happens to My Pets if I Die?

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Your pets will always need a home and veterinary care, so don't leave anything to chance.


mature woman lying down on deck with her head resting against a beagle -- pet dog owner

Image source: Getty Images

There was a time when asking an attorney about estate planning for pets might have earned you a blank stare. Today, though, we treat pets like family, ensuring their care even after we're gone. Omitting pets from your estate is likely to end in one of two ways: Either your family and friends will figure out who's going to take them in, or the pets will end up in an animal shelter, confused and afraid.

Todd Waters and Megan Rooney are childless by choice, but the Chicago couple has filled their home with life and plenty of love. Four Cavalier King Charles Spaniels are kings of the castle, showered with affection as they live out their geriatric years.

My husband and I found it touching when the couple asked us to become guardians of their beloved pets if they should die before the dogs. The likelihood of four very old dogs outliving two young, healthy adults is minimal, but we were still honored and surprised to be asked.

What should not have surprised us was the trust Megan produced. As a partner in a large law firm, she left nothing out, particularly when it came to the care of their four dogs.

Trusts for pets

Never one to leave anything to chance, the couple created a trust for their sweet old dogs. Here's what a typical pet trust includes:

  • The identity of each pet 
  • The name of the person who will be caring for the animal(s)
  • An alternate guardian's name if the first guardian is unable to care for the pet(s)
  • The amount of money designated for pet care
  • How the pet(s) should be cared for
  • The name of the person responsible for making sure the trust is carried out 
  • Instructions as to what should be done with any money left when the pet(s) pass away

Todd and Megan opted not to name each pet individually because, as Megan says, "We'd always be changing our trust."

Wills for pets

It was only after we agreed to care for the four old pups that my husband and I began to feel terrible about not having a formal arrangement in place for our own two dogs. We knew that we needed to add them to our last will and testament when we had it revised. This is what we included:

  • Our pets' names
  • The names of the people who will care for them if they should outlive us
  • How much money we are leaving for their care
  • What should happen to any remaining funds after our pups pass away

Differences between their trust and our will

Our will may sound a lot like Todd and Megan's trust, but there are key differences:

  • The trust includes a trustee, who's there to make sure we don't waste money left for pet care on a trip around the world. Rather than getting a check for the amount the couple designated for the dogs, we'll tell the trustee when we need money for their care. For example, when the four geriatric pooches need veterinary care or grooming, it is the trustee who will provide the funds.
  • Because we chose a will over a trust, the people we have left the dogs to can, in theory, do whatever they wish with the money. Fortunately, we trust them.
  • Todd and Megan’s trust prevents their estate from going through probate. It also prioritizes pet care as the first funds taken from the estate.
  • Our will is less expensive to change than their trust. 

Legacy arrangements

If you're unable to find someone to care for your pet after you die, there are programs that will help. They include veterinary schools, private animal rescue organizations, and the SPCA. If you're not sure where to find such a program, ask your veterinarian for advice or call your local SPCA office.

Estate planning for pets: step by step

Imagining your beloved pet in someone else's home is likely to be your biggest hurdle. It was certainly ours. Once you get past that, though, the entire process of providing for your pet's future can be accomplished in three steps: 

  1. Ask someone you trust to care for your pet in the event of your death.
  2. Meet with an attorney to decide whether you need a will or a trust. If you cannot afford an attorney, look into a do-it-yourself will. There are software programs, online will writing kits, and will packets available at office supply stores. FindLaw provides an up-to-date outline of what each state requires.
  3. Make sure the guardian you have appointed has a copy of your will or trust, just in case they need it to take possession of your pet after your death.

What if there is no plan?

If you don't have a plan in place for your pets, someone else gets to make that decision for you. Whether it's your city, animal control, or law enforcement, someone else will decide where your pet ends up. Megan, who volunteers for an animal rescue group in Chicago, says she commonly meets pets whose humans have died and have nowhere to go.

Our pets are a big part of our lives, but we are their entire lives. We owe it to them to provide a safe, warm, and happy place to live when we are gone.

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