Estate Planning for Pets (It’s Not as Weird as You Think)

An orange cat chewing on one hundred dollar billsIf the phrase “estate planning for pets” calls to mind pampered heiresses with spoiled, fluffy dogs, or old ladies with wall-to-wall cats in their apartments, you probably think estate planning for pets is absurd or frivolous.

But imagine for a moment the elderly widower whose dog has been a constant companion since his wife died, and who worries about what will happen to his furry friend if anything happens to him. Or consider the young family who boards their pet to go on vacation…and never returns because of a tragic accident.

Estate planning for pets isn’t about leaving your property to your purebred Persian. Like all estate planning, it’s designed to make sure the members of your family are provided for and cared for—even the furry (or feathered or scaly) ones.

What Happens to Your Pets if You Die First?

Those of us with animals we love have probably thought with some dread about the day we have to say goodbye to our pets. Far fewer of us imagine the opposite happening: that we will die, and leave our pets with no one to care for them. If that thought has crossed your mind, you may have assumed that a friend or family member would step up. After all, they love your pet, right?

Well, maybe. But there are a lot of reasons that a friend, neighbor, or family member who genuinely loves your pet might decline to adopt them if something happens to you. Pets are expensive, and they may not have the resources to take on your pet’s care. This is especially true if your pet is elderly or has health problems. They may have other obligations and lack the time to give your pet the attention it deserves. Or they may simply assume that someone else will take Fifi or Fido.

Proper estate planning can eliminate many, if not all, of these obstacles. By naming an intended caretaker for your pet (and a backup, in case your first choice is unable to serve), you make it clear whom you’d like to take care of your furry friend. And by providing for your pet in your will or trust, you can remove any financial reluctance to take on the responsibility. A caretaker who is busy could use some of the funds to provide for a dog walker or doggy day care.

Even if you are making an estate plan for your pet, it’s always a good idea to speak with your intended pet caretaker first, and make sure they would be willing to serve in that capacity.

How Do You Make an Estate Plan for Your Pet?

The good news is, if you are already making a general estate plan for your family, planning for your pet’s needs should add minimal expense. You can leave your intended caretaker a reasonable sum in your will for the express purpose of taking care of your pet. However, they are not legally compelled to use their inheritance for that purpose.

Another, perhaps better, option, is to create a Michigan pet trust. Michigan law specifically allows people to make trusts for the benefit of their pets. The funds in a pet trust must be used for the purposes set forth in the trust. A trust also enables you to describe how you would like your pet to be cared for; for instance, you might provide that your pet is to be professionally groomed on a regular basis or fed a certain type of food. Be careful of being too specific; your caretaker should have enough guidance to follow your general wishes, but enough flexibility that doing so won’t be a burden. Make sure you make provisions to fund your trust, of course, or it won’t be of any use to your intended caretaker.

A trust can cover the needs of multiple animals, ending only when the last animal covered by the trust has died. If there are funds left in the trust when the last animal dies, they are to be distributed as provided by the terms of the trust. If the trust doesn’t say how any remaining funds are to be distributed, they will be distributed to the settlor (creator) of the trust if they are still living. If they are deceased, the pet trust statute provides for how the remaining funds should be distributed.

For many people, their pets are just like a member of the family. With a little planning, you can make sure all of your family members, including four-legged ones, are cared for as you would if you were able to. If you would like to learn more about estate planning for pets (or people) in Michigan, we invite you to contact our law office to schedule a consultation.