Estate Planning for Pet Owners
Many pet owners consider their pet a beloved part of the family…and yet when they update their estate plan, they often forget to make provisions for these furry family members. The following is a brief summary of some helpful tools that may ensure your pets receive appropriate care in the event you are unable to provide it yourself:
- Power of Attorney:
Powers of attorney are documents that appoint an agent to make financial or medical decisions on your behalf if you are unable to do so. You may want to include a provision in your power of attorney specifically authorizing your agent to care for and make decisions regarding the needs of your pet.
What if your entrusted agent is allergic to cats or nervous around large dogs? One option is to execute a limited power of attorney, which can be limited in scope to simply grant a pet-savvy agent decision-making authority over your pet (not you).
You should also consider what would happen if a sudden emergency arose: Would your agent have access to your house key to feed your pets? Do they live close enough to do so on short notice? Speak to your agent or a trusted neighbor to arrange an emergency plan.
A will provides for the distribution of property at your death. You may include a provision that names an individual who shall receive your pets upon your passing, or you may grant the executor the ability to select an individual of his choosing. Although you may not leave a sum of money directly to your pets, you may leave the individual in charge of your pets a sum of money, with the request that she use it to care for your pets. Note that such a will provision would not be legally enforceable.
In some situations, this may be sufficient. In other situations, you may prefer to have the money set aside with a more secure guarantee that the funds be used for the benefit of your pet. In that case, you may prefer to execute a “pet trust” as described below.
In 2005, the Illinois Trust and Trustees Act was amended to authorize the creation of pet trusts. A pet trust allows you to set aside money for the care and maintenance of your pet. You may leave the money to a trustee to dole out to the individual charged with caring for your pet. This can in turn create a system of checks and balances to provide greater assurance that the funds are applied appropriately without being depleted too soon.
A trust provides an added benefit of taking effect quickly in the event of the owner’s death, whereas probating a will can be a process that can drag on for months or years in probate court. Note that a judge does have the authority to reduce the amount of property transferred to the pet trust if the amount is deemed excessive.
- Letter of Instruction:
Regardless of whether you choose any of the aforementioned estate planning documents to ensure the care of your pets after your passing, we strongly recommend leaving a letter of instruction. This informal document provides care instructions so an agent can appropriately and confidently provide care for your pet if you are unable to do so. This document should include instructions regarding your pets’ food, water, shelter, veterinary care, medical conditions, daily schedule, and general preferences so your agent can begin caring appropriately for your pet as soon as it becomes necessary.