A young Asian girl nuzzles noses with a tabby kittenA young Asian girl nuzzles noses with a tabby kittenA young Asian girl nuzzles noses with a tabby kitten
Barks & Mewsings

The Trupanion blog

How to Include Pets in Your Estate Plan (And Why It’s Important!)

By: Brianna Gunter

Close-up of a tabby cat sitting with its eyes shut on owner’s lap.

Your pet is part of your family, but will they be cared for like family if you pass away unexpectedly or become otherwise incapacitated? Can pets be included in estate plans?

As it turns out, yes, they can. And they should be.

Death isn’t an easy subject to think about, which may explain why only a third of people actually have an estate plan in place. Even fewer have directions for their pets. With around 6.3 million companion animals entering animal shelters in the United States every year, the consequences of not having a plan for your furry friend can be devastating.

Fortunately, taking the time now to include pets in your will or living trust will help put your mind at ease and ensure they’re cared for in the long run. Read on for useful information about what happens to pets when you die and how you can protect them.

Why pets should be included in estate plans

There are so many things to consider while writing a will or estate plan—it’s easy to see why pets can go overlooked. Besides, most of us expect to outlive our pets. But the truth is that nobody can predict the future. And when pets are left behind without a plan, there’s no control over what happens to them.

According to Andy Lopez, Vice President of Business Development at GoodTrust (a service dedicated to securing digital assets and financial planning), this can result in pets going to shelters or with an owner who is ill-equipped. Even a lack of basic information can lead to animals being placed in homes that are inappropriate for them.

“Let's say, for example, you have a dog who is displaced from a quiet home with one pet parent and is not used to being around young children. This information could potentially be very dangerous if the pet is placed in a busy, noisy home with lots of activity,” Lopez explains. “The pet could potentially become anxious or scared and may become defensive, or worse, bite someone because of it.”

Are pets considered property?

Your estate encompasses everything you own: property, vehicles, bank accounts, jewelry, furniture and other possessions… and yes, pets.

From a legal perspective, your pet is considered property. This means they will be counted among your possessions after death regardless even if there are no specific directives for them. Of course, this is all the more reason to actually take the time to plan out what you would like done with your pets after you’re no longer able to care for them.

A white and black jack Russell terrier poses on an orange bed.

Options for including pets in estate plans

Before deciding what you would like done with your pet, it’s important to understand the difference between an estate plan, a will, and a trust:

  • Estate plan—this refers to the broad course of action for your assets. Both a will and a trust may be included under an estate plan.
  • Will—also known as a “last will and testament,” this is a legal document that specifies your final wishes, including how you would like your property divided up or cared for.
  • Trust—a trust outlines your wishes similar to a will, but designates a trustee to preside over the estate and carry out your wishes.

In North America, the exact regulations for each will depend on the specific state or province. If you have a dog, cat, or other animal family member you’d like to include in your estate plan, you will likely have multiple options no matter where you are.

How a pet directive works

You can include special instructions for most of your possessions in your estate plan, but it helps to be extra specific when it comes to pets. This is where a pet directive is useful. While not a legally binding document, it can nevertheless be included in an estate plan to provide important information.

Pet Directive by GoodTrust allows pet owners to create a pet directive with ease online, no notary or attorney required. Specific details that pet owners can include are:

  • Preferred pet guardian(s)
  • Health history
  • Medical conditions/treatments
  • Food and treat preferences
  • Exercise routine
  • Preferred sitter and groomer
  • Temperament

How a pet trust works

In cases where pets have more particular care needs (or the pet owner simple has more complex instructions), setting up a pet trust may be the way to go.

“A pet trust is a legally sanctioned arrangement for a particular person to care for a pet in a particular way,” Lopez says. “This is different from a pet directive in that a directive is not legally binding but rather a set of instructions, or wishes for how the animal should be cared for.”

It’s important to note that the trustee in these cases is not necessarily the pet caregiver. They can be if designated as such, but their primary role is carrying out the instructions for the animal left behind by the owner. This may include bringing the pet to a new caregiver or location, or simply ensuring that any pet directives are followed.

What to consider before writing pets into your estate plan

Before adding pets to your will or trust, it’s a good idea to ask yourself some key questions. These will help you determine your pet’s care needs and what will help them thrive in the event that you’re no longer around.

  1. What type of care would be in the best interest of your pet?
  2. Do any of your pets have special care requirements in terms of health or temperament?
  3. Who would be best suited to care for your pet if you could no longer care for them?
  4. Is your guardian of choice financially responsible and able to provide for your pet?
  5. What would your vet, groomer, or daycare need to know in order to properly and safely care for your pet?

“Just as each of us is an individual, so are your pets,” Lopez says. “They have specific needs, maybe particular to one brand of food, and require a certain level of activity to keep them healthy. Your pet may also have a medical condition where he requires medication or regular treatment. This information is important to the longevity and overall health and happiness of your pet.”

Don’t wait to provide a plan for your pet

Front view of cat laying on a table next to a dog standing nearby.

Let’s face it—most people know they should have an estate plan. But many end up waiting for a big life event or a scary situation to actually sit down and make one (or update an existing plan, if one is currently in place).

When you have a furry friend depending on you, however, including them in your estate plan now can be considered an important part of pet care. After all, nobody knows your pet better than you do.

“Over the years, the number of domesticated pets continues to rise, and more than 4 million pets are adopted each year in the U.S.,” Lopez says. “With that, including pets in individual wills is a growing trend but with two-thirds of the population without a will, there are even more who are without a pet directive. This leaves many pets vulnerable and their future questionable. Your Pet Directive is not only great for pets who are adopted or re-adopted, but it is also a great tool to share with your veterinarian, dog sitter, and groomer.”

Trupanion is proud to partner with GoodTrust to help keep pet owners informed about their estate planning options. This article is not a substitute for professional legal advice.

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We’re the official blog of Trupanion—chosen by veterinarians as the #1 pet insurance in America. Here you’ll find useful dog and cat care tips, interesting veterinary insights, and fun pet topics galore.

While you’re browsing our pet blog, please note that the views expressed here are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect those of Trupanion. Our articles are reviewed by veterinarians for accuracy, but they are not a substitute for professional diagnosis and treatment. Always consult with your own pet’s veterinarian for advice.

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