For many Florida residents, their pets aren’t just companions, they are family. Yet far too often, when those people start their estate planning, their animals get forgotten. Before you finalize your Will or trust, be sure to ask who will take care of your pets after you pass away, and what resources they will need to do so?
Why Pet Estate Planning Matters
Historically, the family dog was no different than your grandmother’s china or the house you grew up in. Pets were treated like property after a person’s death. That is still true under the default rules – intestacy laws – that apply when a person dies without an estate plan in place. However, over time, cats, dogs, and other pets have taken on a different role in our homes. Now they are companions and beloved family members. If you care deeply about your pets, you should include them in your estate planning and be sure they will be cared for according to your standards after you pass away. You may also need to develop a pet estate plan if:
You Have Young Children Who Love the Pet
If you were to pass away suddenly, your children would be deeply affected by your loss. The family pet can provide consistency, love, and support to your children during their grief. Being suddenly separated from their cat or dog may further deepen their loss and make for an even more traumatic experience. By developing a pet estate plan that mirrors your designations for the care of your children, you can be sure that they have their companions with them during a particularly difficult time.
You Own an Exotic or Long-Lived Pet
The older you are, the more likely it becomes that your next pet will outlive you. Some cats can live more than 20 years. Horses have a lifespan of 40-45 years. Some exotic pets live even longer. (There is a blue macaw parrot alive today that was born in 1899!) If you own one of these long-lived animals you need to have a plan for who will take care of your pets after you pass away. Some exotic pet stores won’t even sell you a parrot or other long-lived pet without proof you have a pet estate . If your pets are important to you, and you want to ensure they do not end up at a shelter, you need to have a plan for who will take on their care, and how they will be paid for.
Your Animal Has Expensive Needs
That brings up a third reason to create a pet estate plan: the cost of care and boarding. Every pet has financial needs even if they are just for food, toys, and an occasional vet checkup. However, some pets, and pet owner preferences, are more expensive than others. If you have a horse that needs to be stabled, a dog that requires regular grooming, or a cat that has particular dietary requirements, those costs can quickly put a burden on the family member or friend who agrees to take on the animal after you pass away. Any animal can have a sudden veterinary situation that costs hundreds or even thousands of dollars. If you haven’t made a plan to provide for your animal’s care, your testamentary gift of a pet could end up costing more than your loved one can afford.
Is Naming Who Gets Your Pets in Your Will Enough?
Your first instinct to solve these problems may be a simple one: name a caretaker for your animal in your Will. While this answers the narrow question of who will take care of your pets after you pass away, it doesn’t address the practical realities that present themselves to Florida residents every day. For example:
Janet has three pure-bred show cats. She used to take them to shows and make money by breeding them. However, now she is 89 years old. Her daughter Emma has agreed to take care of the cats and manage their show schedule after Janet passes away, so she has included them in the list of property Emma should receive in her Will.
Janet’s health is failing. She has mobility issues and is beginning to struggle with dementia. The doctors are starting to be concerned about her mental state and believe she would benefit from moving into an attendant care facility. However, none of the facilities nearby will accept Janet’s three cats, and she is no longer legally competent to give them to Emma as a gift. What can Emma do?
Remember that a Will doesn’t come into effect until after a person dies. Janet’s Will may give Emma authority over her cats, but it won’t help while Janet is alive but mentally incompetent. Instead, Emma would need to go to the Florida Probate Court and open a guardianship to request permission to make decisions about Janet’s property – including the cats. However, Janet and Emma can plan ahead to prevent this situation. By creating a Durable Power of Attorney (DPOA) over Janet’s affairs – including her pets – Emma can make sure the animals are cared for even before she passes away.
Consider a Pet Trust
Instead, Janet and Emma could also have created a pet estate plan that began before she was diagnosed with dementia, like a pet trust. This would have allowed Emma to step in as substitute caretaker and provide for the animals as both mother and daughter intended.
A pet trust can operate on its own, or in conjunction with a living Revocable Trust. It designates caretakers and trustees who can control what happens to the designated pets and how their care is paid for. The pet trust provides funds for the care of the named animals. When the last pet passes, the pet trust documents will award any remaining balance to a specific beneficiary, or allow for the funds to be donated to a pet-friendly charity – such as a no-kill pet shelter.
Pet trusts address many pet estate planning needs. It can ensure that your beloved animals are cared for over their entire lives, even if they outlive you. It also protects your friends or family members from having to pay for their care out of their own pockets. If animals are part of your family, you should talk to an estate planning attorney today to develop a pet estate plan, and decide if a pet trust is the right answer for you.
At Harrison Estate Law, we can help you build an estate plan that takes care of your whole family, including your pets. We will help you identify who will care for the animals and how their financial needs will be met. Please contact us online or via email or call 352-559-9828 to schedule a free consultation. If you don’t live close to Gainesville or are socially isolating due to the Covid-19 epidemic, we are happy to set up a phone or Zoom call.