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No one likes to think about death. Especially their own. But the fact is, I have this sweet friend that depend on me for care. So, with that in mind, I put together an estate plan to ensure they don’t end up in a shelter if I die unexpectedly.

You’ve probably looked into estate planning at some point already, or at least heard of it. Estate planning is one of the most important steps any person can take to make sure that their final property and important health care wishes are honored, and that loved ones are provided for in their absence. You think about who will get your house, your car, precious keepsakes perhaps, but have you thought about your pets?

To help keep your dog or other pets from entering the system, you need to have a plan in place. Pet estate planning, although essential, is often overlooked. We’ve made it easier for you a provided a list of frequently asked questions regarding pet estate planning to help you better understand the legal process and possible repercussions of not having a plan in place.

Q: What are my options with pet estate planning?

A: There are a few options available. You can take the formal route with a pet trust, set up a provision in your will, or even an informal agreement. You also can come to an informal arrangement with a family member or friend to care for them. Let’s look at the pros and cons of each of the four options:

1. Pet trust: This legal technique transfers ownership of your dog to a trust, which includes instructions for their care and money that’s needed to pay for it. You will name a caregiver, and appoint a trustee to oversee care and any related expenses.

Pros: You have the most control over the care of your dog and the money spent, as the caregiver and trustee are under a legal obligation to follow your exact instructions. If you choose a statutory pet trust, it includes less detail, allowing state law to back up your wishes. This may be sufficient if you do not foresee family members contesting the trust. Also, if you opt for a living pet trust, as opposed to one that kicks in after you die, your dog are provided for in a case where you become unable to care for them yourself due to serious injury, illness, or advanced age.

Cons: You must use a legal professional as well as fund the trust upon creation and pay for any start-up and administrative fees. However, that might not be a con for some. If you already have an estate plan in the works, adding a pet is typically very inexpensive and wouldn’t add much to the overall cost.

2. Will provision: This option simply allows you to include a provision in your will that leaves your dog to a beneficiary. You also can leave money for their care to the same person or another individual.

Pros: A will that includes provisions regarding pets will usually cost less than creating and administering a traditional pet trust.

Cons: The person you leave your dog to doesn’t have to follow any instructions you provide, because they aren’t legally enforceable. Unlike with a pet trust, you can’t distribute money for care over time, there is a lump-sum payout instead. You also can’t ensure that the money gets spent as directed or on your dog at all. Also, a will must go through the probate process, leaving the care of your dog up in the air during that time. And since a will goes into effect only upon your death, it can’t provide care for your pets if you become seriously injured or ill, unlike a traditional pet trust.

3. Informal arrangement: You can skip all of the legal processes above (though this is not the recommended course of action) and ask a trusted family member or friend to take your dog when you die.

Pros: It costs nothing to establish an arrangement, though you may want to treat your family member or friend to lunch to discuss the plan and also leave them funds to ease the burden of taking over the care of your pets. Make sure that any beneficiaries of your estate understand your wishes and won’t put up a fight.

Cons: You have absolutely no control over the care your dog receive after you die. You may also want to consider what would happen if your family member or friend were to die before your dog. Who would take over their care?

Q: Whom should I leave the care of my dog to when I die?

A: If you opt for a traditional pet trust, you must name a caregiver. This can be the same person if you trust him or her with financial as well as pet-care matters. However, if you want the oversight that a trustee provides, choose someone with financial and pet smarts for the role. This can be a family member or friend who isn’t able to take your dog for whatever reason, but who wants the best for them.

No matter what option you choose, pick someone who will treat your dog as you did. Consider only those responsible enough for the task and make sure it’s someone with a stable home environment. In addition to naming backup trustees, name a last-resort option, such as a sanctuary, pet retirement home, or service that finds loving homes for pets left orphaned.

Q: What instructions should I include in a pet trust or protection agreement?

A: Be sure to include medical care, including preferred vet office and expenses covered by the trust. Also do more day-to-day areas, including:

  • Food and treats
  • Exercise
  • Grooming
  • Crates and beds
  • Pet-sitting
  • Funding or reimbursement process for expenses
  • Burial or cremation

You should also note whether the trustee or caregiver should receive any compensation. Although the role doesn’t require payment (unless you opt for professionals), including a salary of sorts or lump-sum payout makes sense. Whoever you choose will take over care of your beloved pets, and they deserve whatever thanks you can afford to give.

Think of the above information as a starting point. Each situation will have its own issues, and an Estate Planning Attorney can best advise you how to move forward, including whether to add a power of attorney to the above plans.

One last tip, if you live alone, carry a card in your wallet and post a note at home that states who should be called to take custody of your dog if you die. A bit morbid perhaps, but vital to their health and well-being.