Emergency Planning, Pet Trusts and Wills

Nov 26, 2018   Tracey Aston   Pet Safety

Since our beloved fur babies unfortunately live much shorter lives than we do, often we don't think about the consequences of them outliving us. Death is never an easy subject to speak about or plan for but in the event of an unexpected illness, accident or death, what will become of your pets? As difficult a subject this is, planning now will ensure your pet will be cared for if the unthinkable should occur. 

The first way to protect your pet in case of an emergency while you're out of the home is to have an “alert card” on your person at all times. It will let emergency personnel know there is an animal at your home and lists the names and phone numbers of your emergency pet caregivers.  Unfortunately, animals can get overlooked in an emergency simply because no one is aware they are alone at the residence. 

Make sure those you have listed are trusted family or friends and are made aware they are listed as your contacts and agree they can properly take care of your pet in case you can no longer do so.  Your trusted emergency caregivers should have access to your home, whether by keys or security code, feeding and care instructions for your pet, the name of your veterinarian or animal clinic, and if they aren't going to be a permanent caregiver for your pet, the contact information of the permanent caregiver.  Your pet sitter is a great choice for an emergency contact, as they already care for your pet and your pet knows them, they know your pet's routine, already have access to your home and can be there to allow your family to be with you at the hospital. Whoever, you choose, be sure you have something on file at your veterinarian's office, allowing someone else to access your pet's information. 

Post “in case of emergency” stickers on your doors and windows letting emergency personnel know there are animals present in the home. Most stickers will list the number and type of pets. In the case there is an emergency at your home and you are left incapacitated, emergency personnel will need to be made aware of pets in the home. In the case of a fire, personnel will know an animal is in the home and try their best to rescue them. In the case of a health emergency, EMS personnel and first responders will know to watch for animals for their safety and the safety of your pets. 

There is a lot that you can do to plan for the care of your pets when doing estate planning.  Make sure that you discuss with your attorney your concerns about your pets and what you want for their care in the event of your death or incapacitation.
Don't forget about your power of attorney. Should you become seriously ill or incapacitated, the person you give power of attorney to will not only make financial decisions, but may also have to decide what is best for your pet(s). Make sure that you make your wishes known to them.  

In the event of a permanent, long-term injury or death, formal arrangements will need to be set in place that specifically covers your pet. When family and friends are consumed with grief over a loved one's unexpected illness, accident or even death, pets can become overlooked in the confusion. Please be aware that verbal arrangements will NOT be enough to ensure your pet goes to the person you have chosen.  If you obtained your pet through a breeder or rescue, check the paperwork to see if there is a clause that requires that you return the pet in the event you can no longer care for them. If you truly wish a family member to take over permanent care, talk to an attorney about breaking the contract or adding an addendum to the adoption contract. It will be to your benefit to work with an attorney to draw up a trust, add provisions to a will or other document stating the name of the caregiver to whom you are giving ownership. While our pets are a huge part of our lives and hearts, to the state, they are still considered property and legally will need to be handled as such. 
When choosing a permanent caregiver for your pet in the case you can no longer care for them, it's vital to choose someone both you and your pet trust. Remember, the new owner will have complete control over your pet's care, including veterinary treatment and euthanasia, so it is of the utmost importance to choose someone you completely trust.  Communicate with your chosen pet caregiver and make sure they understand the trust you are putting into them and they agree to the proper care of your pets for the remainder of their lives. If your pet is microchipped, your pet caregiver will need to update their chip information, in the case of death, they will need an obituary or death certificate to be able to do so. Life can be unpredictable and circumstances can change, therefore, it would be a good point to also check in with this person often to review your choices and make sure they are still in agreement. 

When planning for the long-term care of your pet as part of your estate planning, you need to keep a couple things in mind.  First, pets are considered property under Pennsylvania law and you cannot leave property (or money) to property. Therefore, even if you put a clause in your will leaving all your estate to your fur baby, it will not stand up through the probate process.  The second, more pressing issue is that your family may challenge the will if you leave too much for the care of your pets and not enough (in their view) for them.  

While estates can't be left to a pet, you can provide in your will for funds to go to the designated pet caretaker to pay for the care of your pet.  In Pennsylvania, you can set up a trust to provide for care for your pet. This became legal when the Pennsylvania Uniform Trusts Act, including Section 7738, which allows for the creation of a trust to care for animals, was passed.  Now, there are some limits here; the pet that benefits under the trust must be alive when the trust is created.  So you can provide for the care of your pets, but not for any puppies or kittens that they might have after you are gone. 

A Pet Care Trust fund can be established under your will and funded through your estate (this is known as a testamentary trust) or it can be established during your lifetime as a separate, stand-alone document (this is known as an inter vivos trust). An inter vivos trust can be funded when it is created or through your will.  This can be done in your will or by having a separate pet trust fund. The pet care trust fund will name a trustee to manage the funds held in the trust and ensure the animal is receiving care. In most states, including Pennsylvania, the trust lasts only for the lifetime of the pet(s) who's care is the subject of the trust. While setting aside the amount you want to bequeath for your pet's care, take into consideration your pet's age and overall health. A young dog, even free of accidents or major health events, could still live 10+ years and will require shelter, food, and veterinary care of the rest of their lives.  Many attorneys will recommend that you leave only enough to cover what your pet(s) will need. (Dog care averages $780 – $1,500 a year, depending on size, while cat care averages $640 a year). The more money you leave, the more likely it may be challenged by your heirs and relatives. You should also consider what happens to any surplus funds that remain after the death of your pet.  Consider a trust where the funds are drawn down as needed for the care of your pet, but then at the end of the pet's life, the remaining balance, if any, would go to a pet charity or shelter.  If the money goes to the caregiver, it may act as a disincentive for him or her to properly care for your pet if there is a large “reward” waiting for them at the end of your pet's life.
A last point to consider is the time lag between a death and the execution of the will. Probate can take months to even years and someone will need to be caring for your pet through this process. A provision can be added to your will that allows the executor to use estate funds for the care of your pet while the will is in probate. 

If at any point in the process you feel you are unsure of how to proceed or legal avenues need to be taken during this process, seek the help of a legal professional in preparing all documents to protect your pet.  

No one wants to think of the unthinkable, but it's vital that arrangements be made for the safety of your pet. Taking the time now will ensure your pet can be properly cared for in your absence and will give you peace of mind now, knowing you have done everything you can to provide for your pet, even after your death.

Our sincere appreciation and thanks to Raymond M. Roberts, ESQ of Rothman Gordon Attorneys for his invaluable knowledge of estate planning, pet trusts and wills.  For more information on estate planning and trusts, visit the Rothman Gordon website for Mr. Roberts' downloadable PDF file titled After A Death…What Do I Do Now? A Practical Guide for Survivors. 

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