Comedian Joan Rivers was widely known as a dog lover who adored her pets. When she passed away due to surgical complications in the fall of 2014, her dogs were by her side. They were also well provided for in her estate plan.
At White & Associates, we know just how important our clients’ pets are to them. That’s why we often discuss the continued care of family pets when we assist our clients with estate planning matters. Our clients are sometimes surprised to find that there are several ways to protect pets in an estate plan. They gain peace of mind from knowing that their companions will receive the best possible care in the event that their owners are unable to care for them.
Providing for Your Pet in Your Will
Different estate planning documents can come into play when providing for the care of a pet in an estate plan. Joan Rivers used a pet trust to provide for her four rescue dogs, instructing that her personal assistant would assume the responsibility for their care. In Minnesota, however, there is no provision for pet trusts. A will is often the best option here.
When your lawyer drafts your will, he or she can include language like “I leave my dog Fido and $5000 for his care to my friend Sue.” This should be effective in transferring ownership of Fido to Sue. But there can be some drawbacks. More specific instructions, like exactly how Sue should provide that care, are important but may not be legally enforceable. What’s more, there can be a period of time before property listed in a will is distributed, and Fido might not receive the care intended during the transition.
In Minnesota, pet owners sometimes use their wills to transfer ownership of their pets to a no-kill shelter, and then provide some funds for the shelter to use in finding a loving, permanent home. There are several area shelters and organizations that take care of pets after their owners have passed away. The amount of money the owners donate depends on a range of factors, including the type of pet involved and that pet’s needs.
A document called a “pet protection agreement” is less common, but is an option when providing for the care of animals. The agreement is a contract between you and someone you trust. It states the terms you have discussed and is signed by both of you.
Aren’t Verbal Agreements Enough to Protect Pets?
Are these documents really necessary? Isn’t a promise from a loved one enough? Sadly, as experienced attorneys we know that the answer is ‘no.’ Caring for a pet can be more complicated than your family and friends anticipate. Unforeseen obstacles may prevent them from delivering on the promises they made. A lease provision might mean that the pet isn’t welcome in a caretaker’s new apartment. An allergy can prevent that person from providing daily care. Family situations can change, too, as new babies join the family or as couples divorce.
All of these things can mean that even promises made with the best intentions are not followed through on. When this happens, only legally enforceable documents will truly protect your pets.
The good news is that it’s not that expensive to add your pets to your estate plan. Joan Rivers may have been worth millions, but protecting pets with an estate plan isn’t only for the rich. It’s becoming more and more common for everybody to do it. If you have a “fur child” you’d like to protect, it’s a good idea to talk with your lawyer about your options.