What Will Happen to Your Pet Should You Pass Away? Are You Prepared?

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Have you ever thought about what would happen to your pets if you became disabled or, worse, passed away? What would happen to them if you don’t have a spouse to care for them or you simply don’t trust your kids to tend to them the way you’d like? Is having them go to a shelter or a rescue your only option?

The answer to that last question is a resounding, “No!” Believe it or not, there are legal tools at your disposal that you can use to make plans for your pets to be cared for if you’re no longer able to tend to them yourself either semi-permanently or permanently. The first is a pet protection agreement and the other is a pet trust.

Both tools provide instructions about how your pets should be cared for and by whom. The documents should include information that answers questions such as the following:
What food should your pet eat?
What veterinarian should treat your dog or cat?
What no-kill shelter or secondary care provider should your pet be taken to in the event the primary caregiver you chose cannot care for your pet?
Where should your pet go for grooming?

If your pet is young, a pet protection agreement or pet trust document should designate the age at which you want your dog or cat to be spayed or neutered. For more mature pets, you should make note of any allergies they’ve developed and how they should be treated. Your agreement or trust document should also mention the medicines that your pet needs, when they should be administered and what dosages your pet takes. Of course, you should also provide instructions about what should be done to help your dog or cat adjust to a new environment as well.

While a pet protection agreement and a pet trust document will include a lot of the same information, they differ in a significant way – a pet trust document creates a trust that will provide funds that a successive caregiver can use to pay for the things your pet needs whereas a pet protection agreement does not. States generally consider pets to be the property of their owners, making it virtually impossible for you to leave money directly to your dog or cat. A pet trust solves this problem because it’s basically an account that holds money intended to benefit your pet.

While a pet trust makes it possible for you to leave money to your pet indirectly, you cannot put excessive amounts of money in a pet trust, meaning you can’t use a pet trust to avoid or reduce estate taxes. What a court may find excessive depends on a number of factors, including the number of pets you have, the lifestyle your pets are accustomed to and how you intend for them to be cared for in the future.

In Wisconsin, the law regarding this point reads as follows:
“Property of a trust…may be applied only to its intended use, except to the extent the court determines that the value of the trust property exceeds the amount required for the intended use [pet care]. Property not required for the intended use must be distributed to the settlor [creator of the trust], if then living, otherwise to the settlor’s successors in interest.”

If you create a pet trust, you can fund it with money or valuable assets that you have on-hand. Alternatively, you can buy a life insurance policy that would pay proceeds into the trust at the time of your death. Regardless of how you fund your pet trust, your trust document should specifically list the things that the money in the trust can be used for to prevent your pet’s caregiver from using the funds for his or her personal use. In general, it’s wise to designate the name of an attorney who will examine the trust’s financial records annually in your trust document. A yearly audit will help prevent anyone from abusing the trust’s proceeds.

In case money remains in the trust after your pet passes away, your trust document should state what should be done with the remaining funds. One option is for the remaining money to be given to your pet’s guardian. Another option is for the funds to be donated to a charity.

Regardless of whether you have a pet protection agreement, a trust document or both, it’s imperative for you to keep the relevant paperwork in a fireproof safe or safe deposit box that your pet’s guardian can access easily. It’s equally important for you to leave copies of your pet’s vet records with your legal documents so your pet’s new caregiver will be instantly familiar with your pet’s medical history and able to make critical health decisions when necessary.