Providing for your pets

Estate planning for our most precious assets  

18 Dec 2018

Key takeaways

  • The estate planning process presents an opportunity to address ongoing pet care.
  • Pet owners can choose to establish informal or formal arrangements to ensure their pet’s future well-being.
  • Pet owners should select caregivers for either arrangement carefully and choose only organizations they trust.

Countless owners consider their pets to be part of the family. So why are pets often overlooked in estate planning? A considerable number of domestic pets suffer because their owners did not know, and were not advised, to make arrangements for them.

On the other hand, pets with proactive owners who take part in the estate planning process can continue to live a life of comfort—even luxury—in the event of their owner’s death or disability. Trouble Helmsley, a Maltese and the trust beneficiary of billionaire hotelier Leona Helmsley, acquired a $2 million inheritance upon her owner’s death.

“Mrs. Helmsley cared for her precious pup in life and planned for her ongoing care following her death in 2007,” the UBS Advanced Planning team writes in its whitepaper “Planning for pets” (PDF, 143 KB). “All humans who truly care for their non-human family members—whether dog, cat, bird, tortoise, snake, monkey, koi, etc.—can make provisions to do the same in their own estate planning documents.”

While not every pet needs to be chauffeured in a limousine, addressing ongoing pet care is critical to your pet’s well-being. In the whitepaper (PDF, 143 KB), UBS Advanced Planning shares some key considerations for owners who want to ensure their wishes for non-human family members are carried out.

Trouble Helmsley, a Maltese and the trust beneficiary of billionaire hotelier Leona Helmsley, acquired a $2 million inheritance upon her owner’s death.

Ensure your wishes are carried out

The possibilities for pet owners when it comes to estate planning are endless. You can create formal or informal arrangements, the latter typically being easiest to implement.

UBS Advanced Planning advises clients to begin with a list of expectations regarding a pet’s ongoing care. This list should include essential items, such as feeding instructions and veterinarian contact information. Select temporary emergency caregivers and confirm that they’ve accepted the responsibility to care for your pet. Document the list in writing for your reference, but remember that these informal arrangements are not legally enforceable.

“In many cases it’s not enough that long ago your friend verbally promised to take in your animal or even that you’ve decided to leave money to your friend for that purpose,” the Advanced Planning team adds. That’s why some pet owners opt for more formal, legally enforceable arrangements for their furry family members, such as a pet trust.

While a will specifies your wishes for the care and ownership of your pet upon your death, pet trusts can provide additional protections and advantages by stipulating that money will be set aside for the benefit of your pet. You should speak with your attorney about what types of pet trusts are available in your state.

Choose caregivers carefully

No one can replace the bond you share with your pet, but be sure to find someone who will try their best. If you have more than one pet, consider if having multiple caregivers makes sense. Reflect on the people in your life who have come in contact with your pet or have successfully cared for pets of their own.

“Make sure you choose a person you trust implicitly and who will do what is in the best interest of you and your pet,” Advanced Planning recommends. Over time people's lives change, so staying in touch with your designated caregiver(s) is crucial.

Only use organizations you trust

Humane organizations that will care for your pet can be hard to find. Lack of space, funding and certainty of future adoption are limitations that many humane organizations cannot overlook. There are a few, however, that provide “pet retirement homes” for a fee or donation. If you choose to leave your pet with an organization, visit the site and assess the situation. Ensure the organization is well-established before making a decision.

In the eyes of the law pets are considered personal property, the Advanced Planning team notes, but “to their owners they often mean more than a sofa or chair—they are best friends, companions, and even family. … The estate planning process presents an opportunity to address ongoing pet care.”