I am the proud human companion to two wonderful rescue dogs, a Labrador retriever named Kix and a Beagle named Baxter. For many of us, we consider our pets to be part of our family. Yet, oftentimes, pets are not considered when we make our estate plans. In Washington, pets are considered property and in the absence of a document directing their disposition, pets pass to your heirs. This is frequently not the option that pet owners prefer and, with a little bit of planning, you can take steps to ensure that your pet will be taken care of in the event of your disability or death.
One of the simplest planning options is to name a designated pet caretaker in your Will. Most individuals that choose this option leave a specific amount of money to the designated caretaker. The primary advantages of this option are its simplicity and cost effectiveness. There are many disadvantages, however, including the fact that the individual named may be unable or unwilling to take the pet, the individual may take the pet and then use the funds given for other purposes, there is no guarantee that your wishes will be carried out, and there is no guarantee that the amount of money left to the caregiver will be enough to care for the pet over its lifetime. If someone is generous enough to agree to take my pets when I pass, I want to make sure that I leave them enough money to pay for Kix’s Dingo addiction or Baxter’s expensive medications.
Another option is to create a pet trust in your Will. This is also a simple option, but it will likely require that you hire an attorney to draft the document to ensure that it complies with state law. A primary consideration with the drafting of a pet trust is to leave enough money in the trust for the lifetime care of your pets. It can be difficult to estimate the future care costs for your pet and I generally advise clients to leave more to the pet trust than they expect their pet(s) will need. Other considerations in the drafting of a pet trust include the decision of who will be the pet’s designated caretaker, who will serve as the trustee of the trust, and who will receive the remaining trust funds when the pet passes away. Another recommendation with the creation of a pet trust is that the pet beneficiaries be microchipped as there have been some unfortunate tales of Rover passing away and being replaced by a Rover look-alike so the caregiver continued to receive the trust funds. Overall, the pet trust can be a great option for individuals who plan to adequately fund the trust and who want the relative certainty that their wishes will be carried out.
Finally, if you live in or near King County, Washington you can take advantage of the Seattle Humane Society’s Pet Guardian Program. A $1000 enrollment fee per family covers up to five animals owned by the enrollee at the time of their passing. In their Will or Trust, enrollees simply designate the Seattle Humane Society to be the recipient of their pets at the time of their death (or designate the same in a Durable Power of Attorney and the Seattle Humane Society can accept their pets in the event of their disability). Then, upon your disability or passing, the Seattle Humane Society will take immediate custody of your pet, keeping pets together if desired. If it is advantageous for the pet, they will keep the pet in foster care. The Seattle Humane Society will keep your pet as long as necessary to ensure placement in a compatible, loving new home. This is a relatively new program and Foxxy recently became the first member of the Pet Guardian Program to find a new family.
Pets rely on their human companions to provide them with food, shelter, veterinary care, attention, and love. Because pets have shorter life expectancies, we often think that they will pass away before us. However, as responsible pet owners, it is imperative that we care for our pets both during our life and, in the unfortunate circumstance, that we precede them in death.