Estate Planning for the Pets We Love


If you are anything like most pet owners, you love your pets and treat them as a member of your family (and sometimes even better!)  Many people assume their animals will die before they do, or that someone in their family will take care of their pets after their death.  But sometimes, your family may not think that little Fido is quite as sweet and innocent as you do.  So, if you really love your pet, you may want to go ahead and create a plan for them after you are gone.

Under recent changes to Georgia law, animals are now considered chattel.  That means they can be bought or sold during life, and may be gifted under your Will at death.  While most people do not think about their dog or cat as being “personal property”, Georgia law now says they are. That means you can include your desires for your pet in a will or other legal instrument and courts will enforce your desires.  So, here are three ways that you can plan for pets who survive you:

 

1. Have a friend or family member agree to care for your pet. 

The easiest thing you can do is also the least formal and least expensive: simply have someone agree to care for your pet.  If you are lucky, you have a friend of loved one who is an animal lover and probably loves your pet (or animals in general) as much as you do.  If so, that person may give you their word that they will care for your pet if something happens.  Kind of like a god-parent of sorts.

The downside is that (like all other estate planning) nothing is binding unless you put it in writing.  What if there are two animal lovers in your circle that fight over who gets your pet? Or, even worse, the animal lover who agreed to care for your pet may realize that caring for your pet is more costly and difficult than they had originally planned.  If they change their mind, what will be the future for your pet?  While inexpensive and easy, simply having someone agree to care for your pet may not provide the security that you want for your precious friend.

 

2. Leave your Pet under your Will.

The most simple way to secure your pets future in writing is to leave your pet as a piece of property under your will.  Putting your intent in writing is a simple solution that allows you to designate someone specific to inherit your pet.  It is usually a good idea to name a backup beneficiary (or two) in case your first choice dies or declines to receive your pet.  It is very important to remember that beneficiaries can always disclaim gifts under a will.  Just because you leave your pet to someone under you Will does not mean that they have to accept its care.  Just as before, people may decline to care for your pet because they view it as burdensome and expensive.  So, leaving your pet under your Will may prevent people from fighting over your pet but it doesn’t always guarantee your pet’s future.

 

3. Create a trust for your pet.

Simply put, there is no greater guarantee to your pet’s future than creating a pet trust.  Under recent changes to Georgia law, you are permitted to create a trust to care for your pet beyond your life.  Previously, such trusts were void or construed differently than the settlor intended.  Georgia amended the laws in 2010 to make sure pets could be taken care of under a trust.

Creating a pet trust provides three distinct benefits: (1) it permits you to designate who will care for your pet; (2) it allows you to designate money to be used in caring for your pet; and (3) it allows you to designate compensation to be paid to the person caring for your pet.

Unlike any other estate planning tool for pets, a pet trust allows you to relieve the financial concerns that someone else may have for caring for your pet.   The trust provides money for the pet and the trustee!  Not only is the trustee relieved of the pressure of using their own money to care for your pet but they are actually compensated for their time as well.  Paying someone to care for your pet (and relieving the financial concerns of doing so) substantially increases the likelihood that someone in your circle, somewhere will be willing to step up and care for your pet.  It is the best guarantee that you can get for your pet’s future.

Plus, any money remaining in the trust after your pet’s death returns to the beneficiaries under your will.  If you simply give someone a chunk of money to use in caring for your pet, they can do whatever they want with any money that is left over.  Using a pet trust, you can make sure that your money (or at least some of it) is used to care for your pet and then returned to the other people who you care about most (after your pet of course!).

 

Written By:

 

Patrick R. Norris, J.D., Norris Legal, L.L.C.

Chris Lessard, Clerk, Norris Legal, L.L.C.

 

Thank you for reading this article.  The information contained in this article is for discussion purposes only.  The information contained in this article is not legal advice upon which you should act and simply reading this article does not make you a client of Norris Legal, L.L.C. or any other law firm.  Thank you again.