Estate planning for pets: Making sure the kibble keeps flowing when you’re gone

We are a nation obsessed with our pets. In the US alone, we spend $123.6 billion on our furry (and scaly) friends every year. It feels like my household alone must account for a sizable chunk of that for our derpy golden retriever Alfie, between healthcare, food, grooming, toys, the occasional boarding, more toys. You get the idea. When it comes to our dog, we are stupid in love and spare no expense. 

So, what happens if we’re no longer around to take care of our pets? Just as we make arrangements for our kids in the event something should happen to us, it makes sense to do our best to provide for Fido and Fifi. But providing for our pets is not quite as straightforward as it is for our children, for which estate planning is traditionally structured. There’s no such thing as a will for dogs and cats or “pet will.” And despite the stories you may have heard of celebrities leaving millions to their pets (we’ll get to that later), you can’t just leave a bunch of money to your dog in your own will, despite Alfie’s pleas.

There are two primary mechanisms to care for your pet in your estate:

  1. Leave your pet to a specific caretaker in your will and provide that caretaker with funds, requesting they be used for the pet’s care.
  2. Set up a trust for your pet, fund it, and document specific instructions for the trustee for how the funds are to be used in care for your pet.

The easiest way to plan for pets in your estate: Assign a guardian in your will

As mentioned previously, you can’t leave assets outright to your pet in a last will and testament or living will. The law considers pets property. (I double-dog dare you to tell that to Alfie.) What you can do, though, is create a pet clause in your will and leave your pet to a specified caretaker. Then, to help provide for your pet’s needs, and keep them living the grandiose life they’ve become accustomed to, you can leave that caretaker a sum of money with the request that it’s used for care of your pet. 

But there’s a catch. 

Notice that word “request”? Yep, that’s right – it’s just a request, and is non-binding. The caretaker can legally spend the money however they want. If they want to buy filet mignon every night, eat it in front of your dog, and not give them any morsels, the law is on their side. (But surely there will be some punishment in the afterlife. They might spend eternity being chased by slobbering hounds or incessantly mewing cats. This is yet unconfirmed.)

Sometimes, though, you need to have a little trust in life. For what it’s worth, this is the route I took for Alife. I assigned my brother Johnny as Alfie’s caretaker should we kick the bucket before him, and left Johnny some treat and toy money. 

Choosing your pet’s guardian in your estate plan

Choosing your pet’s guardian should be done thoughtfully – and you’ll want to discuss it with the potential caretaker before you have your will drafted. It’s best to choose someone who is good with animals, and ideally a person who already knows and loves yours. My brother Johnny has been a stellar dog dad to several pups, and Alfie adores him. Alfie loves Johnny so much that we’ve been careful not to tell Alfie that Johnny will inherit him in our will, because there’s a chance my wife and I might meet with an “accident.”

If you’re wondering how much to leave the caretaker for your pet, simply calculate your pet’s yearly budget (including healthcare, food and other expenses) and multiply it by how long you hope your good boy or girl will live. 

You can also leave specific care instructions for your pet’s caretaker. But again, these are just requests to help guide them. A few things to think about:

  • How much healthcare intervention should be done in the case of terminal illness?
  • Do you want the pet to be euthanized if they will lose a limb?
  • How would you like your pet’s remains dealt with?

Ironclad estate planning for pets: Creating a trust for your pets (like a baller celebrity)

If you’re uncomfortable with the lack of control leaving your pet to a caretaker in a will gives you, you could create a trust for your pet. This will allow you to assign a trustee and provide specific instructions that legally must be followed. So: there will be no eating of filet mignon without giving morsels to the dog! In this scenario, once the trust is funded, the trustee can only use assets in the trust according to the wishes spelled out in the legal document. If the trustee tries to use that money to hightail it to the Bahamas (without your pet) there could be legal repercussions. 

Creating a trust gives you more certainty and control, but it’s also a bit more complicated. It’s more costly to set up and maintain than a will or living will, and it must be funded. That said, there are many famous cases of celebrities who have left huge sums to their pets in trusts set aside for them. And there’s a reason they’ve chosen a pet trust instead of simply naming a pet guardian – because of the added control and security those trusts give.

(As a dog of leisure, there’s no telling what Alfie would blow his inheritance on. It would be a bacchanalian festival of treats and tug-of-war, for sure. I would need the assistance of a stalwart trustee.)

Real stories of celebs leaving big money to pets

You might be wondering, do people really leave giant sums to their pets? The answer would be yes. We’re talking a lot more than what would cover a few vet bills.

The most famous case in recent years has probably been Leona Helmsley, the widow of a real estate magnate, who was notoriously prickly and left $12 million to her dog Trouble. Some say she did this as a legal middle finger to her relatives, but I’ll let you be the judge, dear reader. 

But Helmsley is not the only eccentric to get a bit extravagant with their estate pet planning. According to the vaunted source, German Countess Karlotta Libenstein left $80 million for her dog Gunther. What, you might wonder, happened to this healthy sum when Gunther met his own demise? It was passed down to Gunther’s progeny, of course – Gunther II, Gunther III and Gunther IV. Insider reports that the estate has ballooned to $375 million, with trustees using the funds to purchase villas all over the world. 

What happens to your pet if you don’t plan for them in your estate?

Hopefully, after reading this article, you will be inspired to provide for your pets in your estate plan. What happens if you don’t? Well, if you have a will, but it doesn’t specifically mention your pets, your pets will likely be given to the residuary beneficiary. That’s the person who is bequeathed anything not accounted for in the will. If you don’t have a will, who gets your pet will be left up to your state, based on that state’s intestacy laws. 

Create a comprehensive estate plan today

Planning for pets is only one piece of an estate strategy, albeit an important one. Make sure you have everything you need in your estate plan with our estate planning checklist. Holistic estate planning is best done in consultation with both your financial advisor and an estate attorney. Vanilla enables a more comprehensive approach with its estate planning software. The Vanilla platform enables you and your financial advisor to better organize your estate plan, to ensure your wishes are documented and followed. 

Pictured: Dan, Rosanna and Alfie in their Seattle backyard. Photo credit: Nancy Dunbar Photography

The information provided here does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice or tax advice; it is provided for general informational purposes only. This information may not be updated or reflect changes in law. Please consult with your financial advisor or estate attorney who can advise as to whether the information contained herein is applicable or appropriate to your particular situation.

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