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What Would Happen to Your Pets if You Died Tomorrow?

Updated: Feb 22, 2022

Would a friend or relative take them? Are you sure? If your pets feel like family members, as they do for so many of us, it makes sense to include instructions for their care in your estate plan. The resources you have to make these plans may depend on how much time and money you’re willing to spend and the method through which you outline the care of your animal. When it comes to estate planning, you may include your pet in your will or be able to set up a legal pet trust.

Here are three steps to ensure that your pets are covered in an appropriate estate plan.

Step One: Choose Your Caretaker

Start by determining who will care for your pet if something happens to you. This could be a spouse, a child, another relative or a friend. Do they have the space or life situation that makes them appropriate to care for your pet? For example, a sister who travels a lot for work might not be the best place for a dog. It’s a good idea to identify a successor caretaker in the event things don’t work out with your first choice. Make certain they agree to assume responsibility for your pet.

If no one in your life fits the bill, consider a local or national charitable or humane organization. Some organizations will care for your pet after you pass. It helps if you give a donation to defray the cost of that care. Check their policies to learn how they place pets and how long they will house them before making a permanent placement.

Step Two: Doing Your Homework

In addition to a caregiver, you will want to give though to the following issues:

  1. Adequately identify your pets in order to prevent fraud, such as through photos, microchips, DNA samples, or alternatively, by describing your pet as a “class”—in other words, as “the pet(s) owned by you at the time of your illness/death;

  2. Describe in detail your pet’s standard of living and care;

  3. If the caregiver is not also the trustee of the funds that you set aside for your pet, you might consider requiring your trustee to periodically “inspect” your pet to insure it is being cared for properly;

  4. Determine the amount of funds needed to adequately cover the expenses for your pet’s care (generally, this amount cannot exceed what may reasonably be required given your pet’s standard of living) and specify how the funds should be distributed to the caregiver;

  5. If you are using a pet trust (more on that below) determine the amount of funds needed to adequately cover the expenses of administering the pet trust;

  6. Designate a remainder beneficiary in the event the funds in the pet trust are not exhausted;

  7. Provide instructions for the final disposition of your pet (for example, via burial or cremation).

Step Three: Put It in Writing

Once you’ve decided who will take care of your pet, put your post-mortem wishes in writing. There are three basic ways to do this: in a will, a memorandum or what’s called a Pet Trust. Each has its pros and cons, depending on your specific circumstances:

1. A Will

Your will disposes of all of your property (whether tangible, such as pets, or intangible, such as bank accounts) in your sole name when you die (meaning there is no joint owner or named beneficiary). Leaving your pet to someone in your will can be as simple as including a statement such as: “I leave my pet dog, Henry, to my sister Barb.” This statement is legally binding and establishes that Barb will inherit Henry.

However, what if Barb doesn’t want Henry? Or, what if, after a month, Barb decides it’s not working out with Henry? Barb will become Henry’s owner and can do whatever she likes with him. If you’ve left a sum of money to help cover costs, there’s nothing stopping Barb from taking the money and dropping Henry off at a shelter. Nonetheless, leaving a bequest in a will, with or without money, can work if you know the person well and trust them to follow your wishes.

2. Letter/Memorandum (Separate from a Will)

Pennsylvania law allows individuals to create a binding letter (or memorandum) leaving their tangible property to specific individuals when they pass if the document is signed by the pet owner. A letter or memorandum may be a good option if, for instance, you are going to have surgery or are going on a trip and want to get something in writing quickly so that your pet is protected in case something unexpected happens. From a legal perspective this memorandum will be considered separate and apart from any Will that disposes of tangible personal property.

3. Pet Trust

One way to plan for that contingency is to set up something called a Pet Trust. Pennsylvania enacted a law in 2006 specifically permitting the establishment of trusts for the care of pets:

20 Pa.C.S. § 7738

Summary of law: A trust may be created for the care of an animal or animals alive during the settlor’s lifetime. The trust terminates upon the death of the animal, or upon the death of the last surviving animal covered by the trust.

To help you decide if this might work for you, here are some basic definitions and guidelines to keep in mind.

What is a Pet Trust?

A pet trust is a legally sanctioned arrangement providing for the care and maintenance of one or more companion animals in the event of a grantor’s disability or death. The “grantor” (also called a settlor or trustor in some states) is the person who creates the trust, which may take effect during a person’s lifetime or at death. Typically, a trustee will hold property (cash, for example) “in trust” for the benefit of the grantor’s pets.  Payments to a designated caregiver(s) will be made on a regular basis.

The trust, depending upon the state in which it is established, will continue for the life of the pet or 21 years, whichever occurs first. Some states allow a pet trust to continue for the life of the pet without regard to a maximum duration of 21 years. This is particularly advantageous for companion animals that have longer life expectancies than cats and dogs, such as horses and parrots.

Why a Pet Trust?

Because most trusts are legally enforceable arrangements, pet owners can be assured that their directions regarding their companion animal(s) will be carried out. A trust can be very specific.  For example, if your cat only likes a particular brand of food or your dog looks forward to daily romps in the park, this can be specified in a trust agreement. If you want your pet to visit the veterinarian four times a year, this can also be included.

A trust that takes effect during the life of the pet owner can provide instructions for the care of the animal(s) in the event the pet owner becomes incapacitated (sick, injured, comatose, etc.) Since pet owners know the particular habits of their companion animals better than anyone else, they can describe the kind of care their pets should have and list the person(s) who would be willing to provide that care.

When considering your estate plan, it would be prudent provisions concerning care for your pet, whether during the owner’s lifetime or after death.  If you have any questions about this or related topics, contact one of our estate planning attorneys.


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