How To Help Your Clients Create An Estate Plan For Their Pets

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For everyone who treats their pets as of the family.

Every few weeks we come across another story of a person who left a fortune to their pets. Whether it’s celebrities leaving fortunes for their beloved animals, this woman setting aside $61,000 for her parrot, or even a massive lawsuit over a dog that “requires” $140,000 a year, this isn’t a trend slowing anytime soon. It’s even more important for the future since The Washington Post reported that “young Americans are less likely to be homeowners, car owners or parents than their predecessors, but they do lead in one category: Pets.”

While most people think they’ll outlive their pets, animal life expectancies can vary greatly. This is a golden opportunity to show you care beyond the numbers and help your clients get a plan in place for their dog, cat, bird, horse, turtle, or whatever lovable creature they hold dear.


1. A Simple Question

Ask your client: Who would care for their pet if something happened to them? They might think a family member or friend will step in, but isn’t it better to have something on paper?

While your client may view their pet as family, the law sees it as property. This is why naming a Pet Guardian is the most important factor in planning for a pet.

This isn’t the person that might watch the pet or feed the fish while your client is away on vacation. They need to be willing to take over completely when your client won’t be returning at all.

Once they identify the new pet parents, they need to talk about it with them to make they’re up to the task. Something like this shouldn’t come as a surprise, to either the pet or the new owners. They should know, and preferably like, each other already. Once they agree, it’s time to get into the specifics. The first of which is including a provision in your client’s Will naming the individual who will be caring for them.

If they don’t have any person in mind they can leave this decision up to the executor, which could be a mistake. If that person is unable to care for your pet, or unwilling to find a guardian, they could end up putting it in a shelter or, worse, to sleep. This is why your help is so vital. Most people wouldn’t even consider this possibility, so by putting the thought in their head you can prevent potential disaster.


2. All the details

Once they've settled on the Pet Guardian, use the following information -- which is also included in an Everplan -- to help your clients account for everything:

  • Name
  • Type of Pet along with the specific breed (include paperwork if applicable)
  • Birthday (Can be an estimate if you’re not sure)
  • Veterinarian Contact Info
  • Health & Diet Needs and Requirements
  • Favorite Activities/Toys/Treats
  • Pet Insurance Info (If applicable)
  • Pet Guardian Info and Instructions (example: How should this person gain access to your house and bring your pet to their new life?)
  • Other Pertinent Info (example: Microchip info, Grooming tips, etc…)

The reason we suggest doing this in an Everplan as opposed to on paper is because details change. Vaccinations need to be updated and links to sites containing insurance or microchip information are meant to be done digitally. Plus, they can share this section with their Pet Guardian so they’re fully in the loop.


3. Paying the piper

Perhaps the Pet Guardian your client chooses can provide care without needing any funds. But what if that pet has a specific diet or requires expensive medication? What if it’s a horse that requires stable fees and other amenities beyond a person’s means? This is where you can introduce a Pet Trust.

Since your client can’t leave money directly to the pets — remember “pets are property” — they can stipulate that the person caring for the pet also gets a certain amount of money to provide care.

Some clients may not need to go as far as creating a Trust. Some can simple leave money from their estate and hope it all works out. However, if they’d like to err on the side of caution, they can set up a Trust wherein the money is protected from being used on non-pet expenses, or even doled out on an as-needed basis by a Trustee who’s not the guardian.

This isn’t as unreasonable as it sounds. If your client is leaving behind a substantial sum of money for some lucky dog or cat (or snake or parrot...), they don’t want the new owners to take advantage of the windfall. In the more likely event they’re only leaving a few thousand, they may want to make sure it lasts. Either way, a Trust can protect these assets so you may want to discuss options with your clients to help them put one in place.


4. A few more legalities

We’ve covered the benefits of a Trust, but let’s revisit the Will. While your client should definitely include their pet in a Will, the one drawback to only making financial provisions in a Will is that it can take a long time to execute.

It has to go through Probate Court, which can take weeks (if they’re lucky) or months. If a Will is contested it could take even longer. What happens to the pet in the meantime? A Trust kicks in right away so money can immediately begin to provide care without court approval.


Final Thoughts

There are people who treat their pets as their children. While this might be strange to some, this is a way for you to show your clients that you get it. By making sure they name a Pet Guardian, showing them how to organize all the relevant information, and helping create a Trust, you could create a bond that lasts a lifetime.

Here's a worksheet to share with your client to help them make sure their pets are taken care of: Pet Worksheet