Pet Planning – What if something happens to you? (Published 04-2019)
Maybe not the first thing people think about when they think about estate planning.
But for many clients, their pets are a key part of their life and they want to make sure that if something happens, their pets will be properly cared for in the short and longer term.
Some of us may remember the Leona Helmsley case from the 1980’s where Ms. Helmsley left $12M to take care of her dog Trouble. Leona’s estate was challenged and ultimately the gift to Trouble was reduced to $2M. Still a tidy sum for one dog!
Ms. Helmsley aside, what are some of the things you should consider when estate planning for your pet.
First and foremost, who will be responsible for taking care of your pet?
The key is to find someone who will agree to take on that responsibility. You may also want to name a successor in case something happens to your first choice or perhaps your first choice decides pet care is too much for them or they are unable for whatever reason.
It’s always helpful to discuss the pet’s needs and your desires for care with the person you choose to take on this responsibility.
Next step? Write down your plan. There are a few different ways to accomplish this from a legal point of view.
You can do a simple letter of instruction if you feel that no one will object.
In most states you can leave your pet to your caretaker in your will or trust, and you can leave that person a fixed sum of money that they can use to care for the pet.
Another alternative is to create a pet trust. This is a more involved way of planning. It is also the best way to leave money that you want dedicated for the care of your pet. The trustee is charged with making sure that the funds of the trust are used by your caretaker to take care of your pet. This solves the problem of leaving money outright to a specific person and hoping they don’t just take the money and leave the pet. This can also cover the situation where you become disabled and are not able to care for your pet.
Talk with your attorney about what to do with any money left over after your pet dies. Some clients leave money to organizations that take care of pets or other favorite charities. Others leave it to other family members. You may also want to include a clause that prevents your heirs from trying to overturn your decisions regarding financing the care of your pet.
The choices are somewhat limitless and can be designed to accomplish almost whatever plan suits you and your pet.
Matthew V. Piwowar is a Grand Rapids estate planning attorney. Mr. Piwowar is a member of the State Bar of Michigan, and the State Bar Probate & Estate Planning Section, the National Network of Estate Planning Attorneys, and the Michigan Forum of Estate Planners.