Pets cannot own property, so you cannot leave property to your pet. However, you can plan to make sure that your pet has a good life after you die. Use your estate plan to make sure that:
When planning for your pet’s life after your death, you have a range of options – from making simple, non-legal arrangement, to making a complex trust, to leaving your pet with an organization dedicated to taking care of pets after an owner’s death.
To make any of these arrangements, you need to find a person or organization that you trust to care for your pet. And that person or organization needs to be willing to do it. So no matter which option you choose, have a candid conversation with your pet’s potential caretaker about how to care for your pet and how expenses will be met.
Again, you cannot use your will to leave money or property to your pet. If you try, that money or property will be included in your residuary estate, see “What If I Don’t Make a Plan,” below.
However, you can use your will or living trust to leave your pet -- and money to care for your pet -- to a trusted caretaker.
This type of arrangement is legal in the sense that Sarah will legally belong to John. However, John will have no legal obligation to use the money on Sarah – he will receive the money outright. If he used the money to play the lottery, there would be no legal recourse.
It’s also a good idea to name (and talk to) an alternate caretaker, in case your first choice cannot do the job.
The clause in Ben’s will might look something like this:
If you want to include a pet bequest in your will, you can use Nolo’s Quicken WillMaker Plus which makes it easy to include a pet clause.
Or, use Nolo’s Lawyer Directory to find a lawyer to help you.
A stronger, more complicated, and more expensive legal option is to make a pet trust. With a pet trust you can leave your pet, money, and a legal obligation to care for your pet. If the caretaker fails to follow your instructions, he or she can be sued. In your trust document, you:
Advantages to using a pet trust. Pet trusts 1) create a legal obligation to care for your pet (as you describe), 2) provide accountability for the money that you leave to the caretaker, and 3) allow you to set up a caretaking plan that will take effect if you become incapacitated.
Disadvantages to using a pet trust. Pet trusts are 1) expensive, 2) inflexible if circumstances change after your death, 3) likely to be more planning and structure than you need if you trust your named caretaker.
Pet trusts are available in all states. Learn more about Pet Trusts.
If you're not able to find a person both willing and able to take care of your pet after you die, you're not without options. Programs exist across the country that allow you to leave your pet to a trustworthy caretaker after you die. For example:
The easiest and most flexible arrangement for your pet doesn’t require formal legalities. If you fully trust your executor and the person who will care for your pet, and you are confident that no one else will claim ownership of your pet, simply tell your executor who should care for your pet when you die. As long as everyone involved is in agreement, there will be no problem for your pet to go to your chosen caretaker.
However, if there is any possibility of disagreement about who should own your pet, it is a good idea to make a legal arrangement in your will or through a pet trust.
If you don’t make arrangements for your pet in your estate plan, who will get your pet depends on what other arrangements you’ve made, or not made. If you have made a will, your pet will go to your residuary beneficiary – that is, the person you’ve name to get the remainder of your estate after any specific gifts have been doled out. If you haven’t made will, all of your property (including your pet) will be distributed according to the laws of your state, through intestate succession. Read more about Intestate Succession.
For more about legal issues with pets, go to the Pet Law section of Nolo.com.
To learn more about how to plan for your pet, go to the Pets and Estate Planning section of Nolo.com.