By Elspeth Berry, Elder Law Clinic Student, Spring 2016
In many modern households, pets are considered to be part of the family. For some, pets are the closest thing they have to children. When a pet is that important to someone, it would make sense that he or she would wish to provide some security for them in a will or other estate planning document. What happens if you become mentally or physically incompetent and cannot take care of your pet for a period of time? What happens to your pet upon your death? Can you leave money specifically for the care and maintenance of your pet? Fortunately, there are estate planning options available to pet owners in these situations that can help set their minds at ease regarding their pets’ futures.
Because pets are considered to be personal property themselves, they cannot inherit anything on their own. The pet owner must therefore provide for his or her pet indirectly. The first thing a pet owner should do is decide to whom they feel comfortable leaving their pet, and then ask that person if they would be willing to assume this responsibility. Once the pet owner makes this decision, and the potential caretaker agrees, he or she may make a specific bequest of the pet in their will to the person they have chosen. The pet owner may also provide for his or her pet during periods of physical or mental incompetency by including a provision in his or her durable power of attorney that names a caretaker for the pet and authorizes funds to be distributed from the estate for the care of the pet. In order to pay the pet’s expenses after the pet owner’s death, he or she may also make a specific bequest of money to the chosen caretaker in his or her will, with the precise instructions that this money be used for the benefit of the pet. Another way to leave money to a pet is by making a trust for them, which a person can do in some states including Virginia. The trustee, or administrator of the trust, has a legal duty to administer trust funds for the sole benefit of the beneficiary, in this case, the pet. A trust can be created for more than one beneficiary, so if a pet owner has more than one pet, he or she may make them all equal beneficiaries. The trust terminates either when the single pet dies or when the last surviving pet dies, if there are multiple pets named as beneficiaries.
While there are no guarantees that a pet owner’s beloved animal will be loved and cared for precisely in the way that he or she would wish, the methods described above can help make sure that the pet is at least looked after by someone chosen and trusted by the pet owner. This can provide some important peace of mind during and after the estate planning process.