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Estate Planning for Pets

posted January 15th, 2007 by
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Story by D. Faith Orlowski

Do you have furry or feathered children and worry what might become of them if something happens to you? Well, you should. Animals within the control of humans are considered personal property. Ownership of property is fundamental to our legal system. The reason d’être for all attorneys practicing in the area of estate planning is to provide for the orderly transfer of property after the death of a person to his or her heirs and/or beneficiaries. Ideally, as part of your estate planning, it is wise to advise your attorney if you have pets and if you would like arrangements made for your pets after your death.

Options for Pets in the Estate Planning Process
If you have pets, there are a number of alternatives for the care of those pets in the event of your death or disability:
A. Gift the pet(s) to a caregiver;
B. Adoption through a shelter, veterinarian or rescue group;
C. Creation of a trust for the care of the pet(s);
D. Placement in a “retirement home”; or E. Euthanasia (the “If I die, so do you” philosophy).

Gift the Pet(s) to a Caregiver
This is the most common solution in an estate plan because it is the simplest with little advance planning or expense required. The problem is often, however, that you have no assurance that the pets will be properly cared for or, more specifically, that the pets will be cared for in the same manner that you have provided. This is the same quandary that you must face when choosing a guardian for your human children. Most estate planning attorneys – if they do anything at all – may just insert one sentence that says “I give all my pets to my daughter, Betty Sue.”

Designation of the Caregiver:
Just as with naming a guardian for your minor children, you should name a primary caregiver and an alternative caregiver. Obviously, they should be consulted in advance and agree to undertake the responsibility, especially if more than one pet is involved. Also, make sure you discuss with your potential caretaker whenever a new pet is added to the mix or replaces a deceased pet.

Should the Caregiver be funded:
You next need to decide whether or not to provide funds to reimburse or compensate the caregiver for caring for the pets. If a lump sum is provided, then there is always the question of whether the money will be used for the care of the pets and/or whether the caregiver agreed to the arrangement because it was funded. In certain instances, you may want to specify that your estate will fund certain “improvements” to the caregiver’s residence, such as dog doors and fences.

But many times people that come in for estate planning tell me that they do not have a friend or family member to be a caretaker or “pet custodian.” If that happens, then we discuss adoption through an animal shelter, veterinarian or rescue organization. The availability of this option will depend on the breed, age, special needs/requirements and temperament of the animal. A list of local animal rescue groups can be found in the directory section of TulsaPets Magazine, and also at Also, many veterinarians, for a fee, take in animals for adoptions. Be sure to verify with the veterinarian that the animal will not be euthanized after a period of time.

In many instances, I recommend a Trust for the benefit of the pet(s). This can be a section of a Revocable Living Trust that the client may need anyway, or it can be a Trust specifically for the care of the animals. In Oklahoma, a trust where the pet is the named beneficiary is not allowed. The trust statutes state that a trust must be for the benefit of a “person” (individual, partnership, corporation, etc.). A trust with an animal beneficiary is unenforceable or void. Most states follow this same theory.

Just think of these critters as four-legged, minor children and the same rules apply. Establish the trust with a caretaker (“guardian” or “custodian”) and instruct the Trustee to distribute the funds to that person for the care of the pets.
The hard questions are:
How much money to fund the trust?
What happens to the money when the animals die? (Obviously, this again can create a conflict of interest).
How explicit do you get with the instructions of how to care for the animals?

Does the client want to leave instructions for the final disposition
of the pet upon its death? (Pet Cemeteries and Crematories are
in most major cities. The Tulsa area has at least three.)

Should the trustee be given the power to name a new caregiver if the primary and successor caregivers named in the trust fail?
Just as with trusts for human beneficiaries, trusts for animals can be established during the pet owners’ life (intervivos) or by will (testamentary). The benefit of having it established as a Revocable Living Trust is that it is in place and available for the care of the pet(s) if the owner becomes disabled or must be moved into a facility prior to their death which does not allow pets.

With either a testamentary or intervivos (“Living”) trust, the Trustee can fund the care of the pets either by a lump sum or by periodic payments. You can also leave instructions to the Trustee to check on the animals or you can leave it to the complete discre- tion of the caregiver. If your caregiver is out of state, your Trust should also fund the transportation of your pets to their new home. Remember, the good thing about a Living Trust is that it is private and does not go through probate. It is not published anywhere, so you can be as “eccentric” as you like and no one will be the wiser. Remember also to name a remainder beneficiary upon the death of the pets. If the caretaker is named as the remainder, it could create a conflict of interest in that there would always be a suspicion if the animal met a quick demise. If someone other than the caretaker is named as the remainder beneficiary, this creates someone with an interest who would have standing to question how the trust is being administered – which can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on the people involved.

Pet “Retirement” Home
For certain people and certain pets, a viable alternative is the pet retirement home. This alternative will also give peace of mind if you would worry about who may adopt your pet(s) once you are gone and whether they would be cared for appropriately (i.e., to your liking).

These facilities usually offer lifetime care and nurturing for a pet in a home-like environment in exchange for a contribution to the organization. OSU offers such a program and there are other programs available out of state. The OSU program is called the Cohn Family Shelter for Small Animals ( This facility currently takes cats, dogs and horses. The “contribution” is tax deductible and can be made during your lifetime so you can use the tax benefit now. You can also instruct your trustee or personal representative to make these arrangements after your death. The “contribution” is per animal and begins at $10,000 for cats and increases from there. If this is something that you may be interested in, contact the Cohn Family Shelter and they will be happy to give you a tour of the facilities.

There is really no reason for someone to request that their healthy pet should be destroyed at their death. If you know someone who says that this is what they want, at least discuss with them why he/she thinks this is the best alternative. If the pet owner’s answer is that they do not have anyone to take care of the pet when they are gone, they are probably unaware of all the various options that have been outlined here.

Immediate Care in Case of Emergency
Making arrangements in your estate planning for the long-term care of your pets is wonderful, but first someone must know that in cases of emergency, there are pets involved who are relying on their owner to come home and take care of them. To take care of the immediate emergency, you should have an emergency card in your wallet and an emergency notification in a conspicuous place in your home. A convenient place is on or near the front door, on the refrigerator and/or in a medical information jar in the refrigerator.

If you are injured while away from the house, the card will notify the emergency personnel that your animals may need immediate attention. If you die or are injured while in the home, the emergency personnel will know who to call. This is especially important if you live alone, or do not have family in the immediate vicinity. It is not uncommon for emergency personnel to notify the local animal shelter if they see animals on the premises and by the time the family is contacted and arrive on site, the animals may have been euthanized by the shelter.

You should also prepare an “animal information document” and keep it with your important papers. This document should list the veterinarians who have the pets’ medical records as well as any medical needs of the pets. It should also list their breed, age and any other pertinent details as to the care and condition of the pets.

Since proper estate plans also include a Durable Power of Attorney in most instances, the agent under a general durable power of attorney has the authority to act for the principal. The attorney-in-fact under this document should also have the authority to act to care for the pets. If you already have a Durable Power of Attorney but do not desire for that person to deal with your pets, you may wish to discuss with your attorney a special Durable Power of Attorney for pet care purposes only.
Examples of the Pet Card and Pet Emergency Sign are shown on page 29.

Important Animal Tidbits
Be sure to correctly name (the legal name) any organization, shelter and/or rescue group to avoid confusion. Many groups become known by a handy “catch phrase” (like “ARF”). If in question, designate the current address or at least the city.

If a shelter, specify a “no-kill” shelter, if you are attempting to save the life of your pet. Many shelters euthanize on a regular schedule or if over-crowding occurs.

If all else fails, consider leaving a “Letter of Direction” even if you do not want to include one of the above described methods in your estate plans. The Letter of Direction is not legally enforceable but is written by you and kept with your estate planning documents and/or other important papers. It directs your Personal Representative or trustee to whom the animals should go and any special instructions regarding the animals. This is well suited for younger individuals who may outlive several generations of pets but who still want to let someone know how they wish their pets cared for should something happen to them.

Most importantly, print off or post by your phone or on your refrigerator the phone numbers and addresses of emergency veterinarians for after-hours animal injuries. That is not the time that you want to try to fumble with a phone book to locate a vet. Put this information where you can get to it immediately. Also call your veterinarian and see what his or her policy is on emergencies. They may tell you to call them if anything ever happens and they will meet you at their office.

The Bottom Line – Your pets need you to provide for them. Do not be intimidated to bring this up with your attorney. If your attorney needs assistance, I can provide them with forms and articles. Many attorneys understand the importance of providing for your pets and can help you make the correct decisions. Others just need you to educate them that this is an important area that they need to be aware of and offer assistance. This is the only property that you have that will miss you when you are gone.

Faith Orlowski is with the law firm of Sneed Lang, P.C., in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
She practices in the areas of commercial real estate, oil and gas law, estate planning, probate, and animal law.