Pets are more than just cute, fuzzy little animals to dote on. They are our companions, confidantes, and friends. They are our children’s playmates and protectors. For a lot of us, they are considered part of our family – and as such, we also need to think about what happens to Fido, Rocky, and Fluffy when we die. Unfortunately, a good number of families fail to do so, leaving their pets at the mercy of the local pound or worse, adding their number to the 500,000 pets in America who are euthanized at the animal shelter every year.
While the law – specifically, California Probate Code Section 6102 – doesn’t allow us to will anything to our beloved pets, there are at least 3 ways we can ensure that they will be properly cared for in the event of their owner’s death or incapacity:
Bequeath your Pet to a Friend or Relative
You can indirectly pass on funds to your pet through your will by giving him/her to a trusted friend or relative along with a monetary gift that is meant to be used for your pet’s care. There are, however, a few risks with this approach. First off, a will has to undergo probate. While your human beneficiaries can find ways to fend for themselves for an undetermined period of time, little Snowball cannot be expected to open the can of cat food on her own. Second, you cannot force the new owner to use the funds for your pet’s care. Although your beneficiary may have accepted Spike with the best of intentions, his/her circumstances may change, leaving Spike shortchanged. Lastly, no matter how adorable dear old Buster (who wouldn’t fall in love at first sight with a 200-pound mastiff?) may be, the new owner might not come to see him the way you do. The worst possible scenario would be for Buster to be euthanized while his new owner does as he pleases with his newfound wealth.
Set Up a Pet Trust
For us pet lovers in California, Scooby’s salvation comes in the form of California Probate Code section 15212, which basically allows us to create a trust for our pets in the much same way that we would do for our minor children. Pet Trusts allow us to appoint a guardian or caregiver for the pet/s, a trustee to manage the funds, and clear instructions on how these funds should be used for the proper care of the pet/s, including how to feed them (and what type of food to buy!), medical history and allergies, preferred veterinarian, exercise and grooming, and even how they should be buried (or cremated) at the time of their death.
A pet trust lasts throughout the pet’s lifetime, however long that may be, which simply means that Timmy the tortoise, Lucky the Koi fish, and other similar pets can live comfortably into perpetuity. Best of all, when Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the “pet trust” law into effect in 2009, pet trusts became legally enforceable. Thus, any interested party – such as an animal care organization or the remainder beneficiaries (those who will receive what is left of the trust’s funds after the pet’s death) – could look into the animal’s welfare and ascertain that the caregiver is not maltreating the pet or misusing the funds.
Animal Care Organizations
Pet care is expensive and not everyone has the foresight to create a pet trust. What if you can’t afford it? What happens to Whiskers if the trust funds run out during his lifetime? What if you can’t find anyone willing to take care of Smokey? Often, an animal care organization is the answer to owners who have these concerns. You can gift the organization with your pet, along with funds for his/her welfare. Some organizations even let you specify the type of care or home you expect for your pet. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) is a good place to start. Even if you have another guardian in mind, I still recommend looking for an animal care organization, if only to name as the successor custodian. Be sure to find an organization that has a “no-kill” policy and that your pet will not be used for research or experiments.
Certainly none of these methods are fool-proof, but at least you can rest easy knowing that should you pass away (or become incapacitated), your beloved pet will not simply be disregarded as your discarded “property.” As with all legal documents, it is always best to consult a lawyer to help you draft your will or trust based on your state laws, pet’s needs, finances, and special instructions for your pet. A qualified estate planning attorney – I recommend looking for a specialist in estate planning, trust and probate law -- can also help minimize common pet trust risks such as overfunding and fraud.