While we always consider what will happen to our children when we are no longer there to care for them, our pets are potentially left just as vulnerable when we die. Currently, under California law your dog or cat is viewed no differently than your car or your sofa. Pets have no rights and no protection. When it comes to probate laws (that govern inheritance and bequests) animals are essentially regarded as “tangible property”.
However, you can take steps to include your beloved pets in your will or trust.
What considerations should be taken into account when contemplating how to best plan for your pet?
The Will: Basic Planning for your Pet
Including a pet in your will adds little overall expense. You simply state in your will whom you’ve chosen to inherit your pet in the event of your death. Money can be earmarked in the will for the use of the person inheriting your pet to help with it’s future expenses. When taking this course of action you must determine how much money should be set aside for the pet’s care -- food, medical care, grooming, boarding, etc.
In the scenario in which you bequeath your pet and money to cover its future expenses to another person, you must be able to implicitly trust that your wishes will be carried out in the manner you have designated. Should that person fail to follow the guidelines you set forth in your will, there is no legal recourse to hold him or her responsible.
If you opt to plan for your pet with a simple will, but there is no one available to take over the responsibility of your pet, there is an alternative; you can specify an organization in your will that finds homes for pets whose owners have died. In that case, a specified sum of money is usually required, which must be included in the will.
The Pet Trust: Ensuring the Best Care for your Pet
For those pet owners who want to ensure the maximum protection for their pets, California passed a law in 2009 that allows legally enforceable trusts to be created for pets, in case of death or incapacity of the owner. As in other types of trusts, there is a trustee who oversees the expenditure of funds that are set aside by the pet owner. This is to ensure that the wishes set forth in the trust document are meticulously followed.
California law sets forth several rules in regards to funds or assets placed in a Pet Trust. Firstly, the trust only exists for the duration of the pet's life. Once the pet is gone, the trust must be dissolved, and all assets and/or funds distributed to contingent beneficiaries. Secondly, if more than $40,000 worth of assets are placed into the trust, the trustee must provide an annual accounting to the contingent beneficiaries (section 16062 of CA Probate Code). If any wrongdoing takes place, the trustee can be held liable in California Probate Court.
Detailed instructions for the pet’s care can also be laid out in the trust to cover all aspects of the pet’s care. The trustee is also typically granted the power to find a new caregiver if any problems arise with the one initially appointed.
The downside to the Pet Trust versus simply leaving instructions in your Will is the upfront cost. However, for many pet owners the peace of mind gained through setting up a pet trust with an experienced estate planning attorney far outweighs the cost. If you execute a Pet Trust at the same time you do your own estate plan, many attorneys will only charge a few hundred dollars extra for the additional work. Of course, it is best to check with your estate attorney to ensure they have experience with Pet Trusts.
Knowing that you have done everything possible to ensure optimum care for your loved ones - including your pets, will give you peace of mind.
For more information about Pet Trusts, or how to add one in to your Estate Plan, call my Walnut Creek Estate Planning Law Firm at 925-322-1795 to set up your consultation.
Photo by: By Marcos Leal - Where it all began, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40542100