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Estate Planning for Pets

Personal Finance
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Senior woman holding her dog in a garden while estate planning for pets

There's a reason you love your pets like they're family: They provide unconditional affection and companionship.

So when you die, you'll likely want to make sure your animals are looked after. While you can't name your pet as a beneficiary of your life insurance policy or will, that doesn't mean they have to be left out of your end-of-life planning.

Here are some things to keep in mind as you start estate planning for pets.

Including Pets in Your Estate Plan

As far as estate planning goes, pets are still considered "tangible property," along with items like furniture, cars, jewelry, and other physical possessions and assets. With that in mind, you might consider making a provision for pets in a will to legally hand off the care of your pet to a friend or family member.

Setting Up a Pet Trust

A pet trust is a detailed legal document that designates a caretaker and outlines the details of the care of your animals should you pass or become disabled. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), a pet trust usually includes three people: the trustee, the animal caregiver and the grantor (that's you). The caregiver and trustee can be the same person.

Similar to a trust for humans, a trustee is responsible for holding your assets (e.g., property, money in a bank account, items of value) for your pets. You, as the grantor of the trust, determine how assets will be handled, such as how much the caretaker will be paid and what percentages of your assets will be allocated to which pets.

Money from the trust will also cover regular care and medical expenses for your pets, which could include food, toys, medication, medical treatments, boarding, trips to the vet, and grooming or pet-sitting costs. A pet trust could also include end-of-life directives, and cremation or burial arrangements for your pet.

The caretaker of your pets will be paid on a regular schedule for the rest of your pets' lives, or for 21 years, whichever comes first, according to the ASPCA. However, some states allow the pet trust to continue for the duration of your pets' lives, even if they live longer than 21 years after you pass. This could be favorable if you have pets that typically have longer life spans, such as tortoises and some birds like cockatoos and macaws.

Communicating Your Plan to Loved Ones

No matter what you include in your estate plan or pet trust, consider taking the time to communicate your plan to loved ones. You might want to give them copies of your pet trust and relevant parts of your estate plan so they can understand their roles and make any preparations they need to.

Most importantly, you may want to sit down with your intended caregiver to set your expectations clearly and make sure they fully understand parts of your will that are relevant to them, and that they consent and are up to the task. Staying on the same page will be essential to helping your estate be executed the way you intend.

You might also want to keep your loved ones — whether it's your spouse, children, trusted friend or extended family member — looped in on your wishes and plans so that they're aware of any responsibilities they'll be tasked with. Besides executing your financial decisions after you pass, they'll likely be involved with handling the care of your pets, or at least making sure they go to your chosen caregiver. Try to give them a heads-up well ahead of time to make sure they're able to help carry out your plans. And try to keep them updated of any changes.

Thinking about estate planning for pets will help you ensure that your animals are protected and cared for after you pass. It can help give you time to lay out plans and express your wishes. When creating a plan and gathering the proper documentation, you may want to consult a legal expert, such as an attorney who specializes in estate planning and ideally has experience with pet trusts.

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