How to take care of your animal family members: estate planning for pets

Written by Kathryn Wakefield , mom to Bailey the Golden Doodle! (kwakefield@bulkley.com)

You love your pet and devote your time and money to caring for your pet’s happiness and well-being.  So, what do you do if you become incapacitated or die while your pet is living.  You have two choices: find a friend or family member who, on an informal basis, will agree to take care of your pet; or make a more formal plan as part of your estate planning.

An informal arrangement is just that, a handshake understanding of what is to happen in a specific set of circumstances.  The benefit of an informal arrangement is that it doesn’t cost anything to set up and you can change your mind at any time at no cost.  Unfortunately, it is not enforceable and can’t be monitored. 

If you decide to make a formal plan as part of your estate planning, one option is to say in your will who you want to have care for your pet and, if you wish, provide money or property to help with that care.  You can name one person or include a list of alternates.   

To deal with what happens if you become incapacitated and your pet needs a place to go, have a written emergency care plan that says where your pet should go immediately, and if different, where your pet should go for a longer term or even permanently.  While this written care plan cannot be part of your will and does not need to be formally drafted by an attorney, keeping a copy with your important documents is a good idea. 

In any case, you should check with those who you charge with your pet’s care before including them in your plan.

If you would like to fund the care of your pet during your incapacity or after your death, Massachusetts now allows you to create a trust for your pet (separately or in your will) as you would for a human family member.  Under this arrangement, a trustee would be responsible for investment of the trust fund and making distributions, and the person you named to care for your pet would provide care.   

The American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals estimates that 6.5 million animals are left to shelters every year.  Having a plan for your pet is vital, so consider consulting your estate planning attorney about creating a properly documented arrangement.