Estate Planning: Your Cat’s Future
There is no doubt that companion animals enrich our lives. Animals can facilitate our recovery from illness, improve our demeanor, offer solace and comfort in times of tragedy, and teach us valuable life lessons about compassion and companionship. People develop deep, emotional bonds with their pets, and many experts believe those bonds can actually lengthen pet guardians’ lives. Considering all that pets do for us, it only makes sense for us to think about our pet’s future and make arrangements for our animal companions, just as we would do for our human dependents.
Establishing a formal will and making plans for the inevitable time of your passing can be a difficult subject to address. The proper distribution of assets among relatives, friends, and charities can raise complicated issues and may require difficult decisions. But the alternative is far less appealing—without a proper will to explain your intentions, your assets (which include pets) can be distributed according to rules set by state statute, often contrary to your personal wishes. And for those of us with companion animals, it is frightening to imagine that our pets could be endangered simply because we did not have the foresight to plan ahead.
Many people not only fail to make formal estate plans in anticipation of their death, they also forget to plan for the possibility of a catastrophic injury or illness that may debilitate them for a long period of time. Loved ones are often forced to decide amongst themselves who should be responsible for animals left unattended, and their decision may be quite different from what you would have wanted.
When it comes to arranging for the care of companion animals, many people are unaware of the options available in planning for the future. And while the information in this section is meant to offer some guidance and direction, keep in mind that you should always consult an experienced attorney when you’re ready to discuss formal estate plans.
There are simple steps you can take now to ensure that your pets live out their lives comfortably, even if you are not able to be with them yourself.
First and foremost, make sure that you have two types of caregivers lined up for your pet: one caregiver for emergency situations and one for long-term care. If you suddenly become ill or incapacitated, you will need someone who can visit with your pet and offer the basic needs of food, water, and any necessary medications. This person should live close by and be comfortable with your pet. This caregiver should have a key to your residence, along with the phone number of your veterinarian and any medical information regarding your animal. This individual needs to be willing to take on the responsibility of caring for your pet until such time as you return or the long-term caregiver is called upon. It also might be a good idea to have two people who would be willing to act as short-term caregivers, as individual’s situations can sometimes change. Once you choose your short-term caregiver(s), make sure each person’s name and information are given to the individual that you have designated as having power of attorney over your estate.
The long-term caregiver should be someone you know and trust. This person should not only know your pet and how you take care of him, but also should personally care about the animal. You will want to choose a person who will be able to give your pet a lifestyle similar to the one you give him. For example, if your cat is an only pet, you may not want to put him into a home with four dogs. You must remember that being in a new environment and, most importantly, being without you will be a stressful situation for your pet. Try to pick a new home that will provide your pet with comfort and security. Again, having two potential long-term caregivers may be advisable.
It is a good idea to put your wishes concerning your pet directly into your last will and testament. To do this, it is important that you seek advice from professionals who can help make sure that everything is in order to protect your pet’s future. Keep in mind that although your will is activated immediately upon your death, it can take days or weeks for it to be legally recognized and acted upon. If you have informed the individual with power of attorney of your designated short-term caregiver(s), you can be sure that your pet will be looked after in the interim. Also, this individual will be able to disburse funds (should your will have a provision for it) to both the short- and long-term caregivers to help them pay for the added expenses of food and medicine for your pet.
In addition to including instructions for your pet in your will, you also may wish to establish a trust for him. A trust will solve the problem of providing care for your pet in the days or even hours following your death, as you can determine ahead of time when the trust becomes effective. Essentially, the trust involves setting money aside to be used for your pet’s care. After naming a trustee to control the funds, you can specify when you wish to activate them. You may decide that the trust should take effect on the day that you pass away, or you may decide to have it take effect should you become incapacitated for a certain number of days, or upon suffering a certain type of injury or sickness. One of the other main advantages of the trust is that it can be written to exclude certain assets from the probate process typically enacted upon your death. This will guarantee that funds are available to take care of your pet in the short term. In addition, a major advantage of a pet trust is that it is enforceable in court, if the trustee fails to abide by its terms. A bequest to an individual for the care of your pet is not enforceable if the beneficiary does not use it as intended. The law regards such a bequest as a preference or expectancy, but not a legally binding obligation.
There are many options available to you regarding wills and trusts. Find the combination that best meets your particular needs and is enforceable in your state of residence. This can be done by consulting with an attorney who has experience in arranging trusts specific to the care of companion animals. Many states, including Illinois, do allow pet trusts as an integral part of an estate plan, but be aware that some states do not legally recognize trusts arranged for the benefit of animals. The only option, if you live in a state without a pet trust, is to make a bequest to an individual for the care of your pets. Pet trusts can be fairly expensive to maintain and administer, so careful consideration must be given to your overall plan. After you and your advisors create your will and/or trust, make sure that copies are given to your chosen executor, including all the information of your chosen caregivers.
Even though pet trusts may be legal where you live, bear in mind that leaving money for a pet may seem odd or debatable to a relative or heir. In some cases, other beneficiaries have contested money left for the care of pets, causing the funds to remain undistributed for months. Be prudent but reasonable in funding the trust, and always consult an attorney for further direction.
In the event that you cannot find a suitable person to name as your pet’s long-term caregiver, there are many animal welfare organizations willing to take them in. These organizations are generally nonprofit and require that a donation be made to them at the time of their taking in your pet. For example, Tree House will act as a guardian for your pet, although we always encourage people to exhaust any possible placement options among friends and family members, since the shelter environment can be a difficult adjustment for a cat accustomed to living in a home. In exchange for accepting this responsibility, Tree House asks that a specific bequest is included in the will, giving $5,000 for each cat admitted to the shelter.
Many animal welfare organizations across the country have created similar arrangements, so it’s best to consult with nearby shelters on their policies. If you have other questions, please contact Dave de Funiak at Tree House at 773-784-5488 ext. 226.
Tree House’s Lifetime Care Program With a bequest of $5,000, your cat will enjoy a cageless, home-like environment, a full veterinary clinic, and love and attention from hundreds of staff and volunteers.