Estate Planning To Protect Your Pets

Have you considered what would happen to your pets in the event of your disability or death? In the United States, an estimated 500,000 pets are orphaned or euthanized each year due to the death or disability of their owners. Over 67% of American pet owners treat their pets like family members, but less than 10% include their animals in their estate planning documents. Proper planning can provide for the care of your pets not only in the event of your death, but also for your incapacity or in temporary emergencies. As your pet's owner, you know what is best for your pet. The person that you name to handle your finances in the event of your disability or to manage the settlement of your estate may know very little about your pet. If you want to ensure that your pet will be cared for properly in the event of your disability or your death, you must leave instructions in the appropriate documents. First, you should include instructions in your Power of Attorney about the care of your pet in the event of a medical emergency or if you become permanently disabled. The person named as your "attorney-in-fact" in your Power of Attorney should be given the authority to find an appropriate home for your pet if you are no longer able to care for your pet. You can name a family member, friend, pet sanctuary, or lifetime care facility as your pet's new caregiver. If you choose a family member or friend, you must talk to that person first, to make sure that he or she is willing and able to care for your pet. As you know, adding a pet to your family is a serious commitment. If you don't have a family member or friend who will be an appropriate caregiver, you should talk to your pet's breeder or your veterinarian for suggestions. You can also contact your local pet shelter or an organization such as the Massachusetts Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MSPCA), which has adoption centers throughout Massachusetts. If you name an organization as your pet's caregiver, you want to make sure that the organization will make every effort to find an appropriate home for your pet. Your attorney-in-fact should also be authorized to give an appropriate amount of money to your pet's new caregiver, to pay for food, medications, veterinary bills, grooming, daycare, dog walkers, treats, and toys. You can determine how much is appropriate by keeping monthly records of your pet's expenses. You should also prepare a written summary of your pet's needs and routines, preferred foods, health concerns (such as food allergies) and medical needs, a medication schedule, and contact information for your veterinarian, pet walker, groomer, and day care facility.

You should also include provisions in your Last Will and Testament about who your pet's caregiver will be after your death. If you don't name someone in your Will, your Personal Representative (Executor) may not know what to do with your pet. Your pet can't be left to sit alone in your home while your Personal Representative is deciding what to do. With so many other things to deal with, he or she may simply drop off your pet at the local shelter. You should name someone who is willing and able to immediately pick up your pet after your death. You should also name a backup caregiver or provide a method for finding a caregiver in case the person that you have selected cannot take care of your pet. You should also include instructions in your Will or in your Trust about the funds that will be provided to the caregiver for your pet's expenses. If you include the instructions in your Will, the money allocated for your pet will be given to the caregiver when your estate is settled. Any funds remaining after your pet's death will be kept by the caregiver. Creating a trust fund for your pet is safer than an outright gift of money to a caregiver because funds held in a trust are not subject to the caregiver's creditors, marital disputes or bankruptcy. If you leave an outright gift of money to the caregiver and the caregiver dies before your pet does, the funds will be distributed to the caregiver's beneficiaries and may not be available for the care of your pets. If you prefer to establish a fund for your pet's benefit that will be overseen by someone else, you can include instructions in your Trust about how much should be set aside for your pet and how it should be spent. In that case, the Successor Trustee of your Trust will invest and manage the funds allocated for your pet, and will oversee the distribution of the funds to your pet's caregiver, as needed. Whatever is left of the "pet fund" can be distributed to the caregiver or to family members, friends, and/or charities after your pet's death.

In Massachusetts, you can establish a Trust exclusively for the benefit of your pet. While this is not done frequently, some people have taken advantage of this new law to leave their entire estate to a pet, who is named as the beneficiary of a Trust that will stay in effect during the pet's lifetime. After the pet's death, the remaining trust funds can be left to family members, friends, and charities, including charities dedicated to animal welfare. The more money that is at stake, the more important it is to correctly identify and safeguard your pet. Your nieces and nephews may not want to wait ten years for their inheritance, while Fluffy is enjoying your fortune. In a few cases, a Bank or Trust Company is named as Trustee of a "pet trust". The bank or trust officers are not familiar with your pet, so you must clearly identify your pet. The officers must also safeguard your pet, particularly when your heirs are not happy about waiting for their inheritance. While a written description or photograph may be sufficient to identify your pet, having a microchip inserted under your pet's skin is the most accurate way to both identify and safeguard your pet after your death.

You cannot be sure that you will outlive your pets, and they will always rely on you for their care. When the day comes that you are no longer able to provide for the care of your pets, your estate planning document can ensure that your wishes are known to those individuals who will be managing your finances while you are incapacitated or those individuals who will handle the settlement of your estate or Trust.

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Roberta A. Schreiber, P.C.
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North Reading, MA 01864-2153

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