Options For Pets After Your Death: What would happen to your pets if they outlive you?

You're an animal lover. You have one or more beloved pets. You give them the best care you can and you know your animals are happy. But do you have a plan for what would happen to your pets if they should outlive you?

The majority of pet owners never plan for this. It's not generally a topic that is discussed with any frequency or urgency in spite of the fact that over 100,000 animals1 are sent to shelters each year in the United States after their owners have passed on and not left a plan in place to care for their pets. These poor animals then contribute to the overburdened animal shelter system, where they risk being put down if the shelter cannot find a home for them or they live out the rest of their lives in the shelter because they may be too old for adopters to be interested.

So what are your options for providing care to your animals after your death?

Create a Trust

You can now create a trust for your pets. Maryland enacted a pet trust law on October 1, 2009 which allows owners to create a trust in order to provide care to an animal or animals alive during the owner's lifetime and which outlive the owner. There are two types of trusts that specifically deal with pets: an inter vivos trust (also known as a living trust) and a testamentary trust2. An inter vivos trust is one that is established during your lifetime and may be used to provide care to pets during any periods of incapacity or immediately upon your death. The funds are administered separately from your retained assets and tax returns may be required. A testamentary trust is effective only after your death and there may be an interval after your passing before the funds can be used. Funds are also transferred to the trust only after your death; no funds may be transferred beforehand.

When creating a trust, you would need to name a trustee to manage the trust and also a caregiver or multiple caregivers for your pet in the event of your death. You will need to decide how the trust funds would be spent and describe what the caregiver's obligations would be, which could even include your pet's preferences and likes or dislikes.

You would also need to determine not only how to fund the trust, but how much would be required. If your pet is ten years old at the time of your death, they could in theory live another ten years if cared for well. How much money would be needed to provide for your pet for that long? Would the caregiver be paid for taking care of the animal(s)? You would need to calculate out estimates for food, veterinary care, boarding or pet sitting if the caregiver goes on vacation or is ill, toys or items to keep your pet happy and entertained, etc.

Include Pets in Your Estate Plans

Another way to establish care during periods of incapacity or in the event of your death is to specifically include your pets in your estate planning. Powers of attorney may be used to authorize an appointed caregiver to care for your pets if you are unable to do so. You can have your estate plans authorize an executor to spend money from your estate to care for your pets or companion animals in the short-term or to find them a new home if you don't want them to go to any family or friends, or if you have no one who would be able or willing to provide care for your pets. You can select and establish emergency caregivers (usually trusted and responsible friends or family) who can care for or collect your pets during an emergency, such as an extended hospital visit. However, these measures are intended for short-term care. They do not necessarily take into account long-term care. For that, you would need to consider including decisions regarding your pets in your Last Will and Testament or consider establishing a trust.

To determine what the best options are for your particular situation, or to find out more about the options described above, it's best to talk to an estate planning lawyer.

1 "Backup Plan." All Animals Magazine. July/August 2013. Accessed at http://www.humanesociety.org/news/magazines/2013/07-08/backup-plan-planning-for-pets-after-owner-death.html.

2 "Pet Trusts." Washington Animal Rescue League.