By Jim Miller
Dear Savvy Senior,
What is the best way to ensure my pets are taken care of after I’m gone? I have two dogs and a cat that are my four-legged family, and I want to make sure they’ll be well taken care of after I die.
It’s a great question. Every year, approximately 500,000 cats and dogs enter shelters when their pet parents experience an emergency or pass away. Without a proper plan in place for the future care of your pets, they are at risk of ending up in a shelter where they could be euthanized.
To avoid this terrifying scenario and ensure your furry family is cared for both physically and financially after you’re gone, you should consider including them in your estate plan. Talk to your attorney about how to insert them in your will or trust in accordance with your state’s laws. Here’s what you’ll need to do.
If you already have a will or are planning to make one, you could simply add in a trusted caretaker clause for your pets, along with an alternative if your first choice falls through. You should also set aside money in your will for your pet’s care with an explanation of how the funds should be spent.
To determine how much to leave, multiply your pet’s annual food, care and medical costs by their life expectancies. You may want to add a separate document, called a letter of instruction, describing your pet’s routine, food and medication.
But be aware that even with this provision in your will the caretaker is not legally obligated to follow your instructions, spend the money as you intended or send the pet to another caretaker that you’ve named. Once the money is distributed to the caretaker, it’s an honor system.
Another option is to create a pet trust, which provides more legal protections. Depending on your state’s laws (see aspca.org/pet-care/pet-planning/pet-trust-laws), you could set up either a revocable pet trust, which can be changed or canceled during your lifetime, or an irrevocable pet trust that can’t be reversed. A pet trust can be completely separate or part of an existing trust that encompasses your other assets.
Along with appointing a trustee to manage your trust’s finances, you name your pet’s caretaker (who could also serve as the trustee), and any alternative caretakers, as well as an optional trust protector for added oversight of the trustee given that the beneficiary (your pets) can’t defend their own rights. Unlike a will, the caretaker has a fiduciary duty to follow your letter of instruction if you include one.
The cost for a living trust ranges anywhere between $1,000 to $3,000, while a will typically costs between $200 and $1,000. There are also cheaper do-it-yourself resources for making a simple will or trust, like Nolo’s Quicken WillMaker & Trust (Nolo.com, $99) and Trust & Will (TrustandWill.com, $159). Or, if that’s more than you’re willing to pay, you can make your will for free at FreeWill.com or DoYourOwnWill.com.
If you don’t have anyone who would be willing to take care of your pets after you’re gone, you should make arrangements to leave them to an animal retirement home, a rescue, humane society, pet care program or other animal welfare group. Many of these organizations find new homes for pets or offer lifetime care but may require a fee or donation. Talk to your veterinarian about the options available in your area.
Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit SavvySenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of “The Savvy Senior” book.