Fur, Feathers, Scales, and Fins: Considering Pets in Your Estate Planning

Tens of millions of American households own one or more animals, lots and lots of animals.  While dogs and cats are the most common, Americans also own horses, fish, reptiles, ferrets, guinea pigs, “pocket pets” such as rats, mice, gerbils, hamsters, hedgehogs, birds, and livestock.  In some states, such as Texas, exotic animal ownership—think lions and tigers and bears, oh my!– is permitted, but may be subject to regulation.

Given the central role that animals play in many people’s lives, you might expect that their welfare and protection is an important part of the estate planning process.  The truth is, however, that caring for companion animals upon the illness, serious disability, or death of the owner is often an under-or over-looked part of the estate planning process.

Talk to anyone who has been involved in animal rescue or visit or talk to animal shelter workers and you will hear sad tales of animals being turned over because the owner’s illness or death left no one to care for the animal.  In some instances, the animal is also aged, ill, or has behavioral or other challenges that make it difficult to place with a new family.  Not all animals are temperamentally able to handle the stress of a shelter or rescue situation and may end up humanely euthanized if a suitable placement cannot be found in time.

What steps, then, should the animal owner take to provide care for her pets in the event she is no longer able to do so herself due to disability or death?

Under Virginia law, animals are “tangible personal property” and have the same status as your sofa, clothing, or automobile, with a few extra protections regarding their care.  This means that during one’s lifetime, the Agent nominated under a Durable Power of Attorney (POA) may have the authority to use the animal owner’s resources to care for the pet if the animal owner is ill or incapacitated.  The animal’s “personal property” status also means that its ownership may transfer according to the terms of the owner’s Will, Trust, or via intestacy if there is no Will or Trust.

Planning for the care of animals upon the owner’s incapacity or death is generally the same under a POA or a Will or Trust except that the POA may envision that temporary arrangements are needed for a period of time until it can be determined if the owner can recovery sufficiently to resume care herself.  In addition, Virginia law allows for the creation of a Pet Trust wherein money will be held in a fiduciary arrangement to provide for the care of the pets owned by the decedent until the last of them dies or the money runs out.

Following are some suggestions and considerations for planning for animals upon the owner’s inability to provide care due to illness, incapacity, or death:

  1. Must the animals be returned to a breeder or rescue? Many breeders or rescue organizations require the return of the animal if the original purchaser/adopter is unable to care for them for any reason. This contractual requirement is an important one to notify others of.

  2. Is the fiduciary (the Agent under the POA or the Personal Representative under the Will or the Trustee under the Trust) going to have funds available to spend on the animal until (and even after) new living arrangements have been made?

    – If so, how will the amount be calculated?  A common method is to use average life expectancy for the type/breed of animal multiplied by its most recent average annual food, veterinary, medical, and assorted “extras” expenses.

    – Can the fiduciary make a payment or donation to a shelter or rescue group if the animal is not going to a close friend or relative?  If so, what amount is appropriate?

    – Can the fiduciary pay boarding and transportation expenses until the animal reaches its new home?  Can the fiduciary pay the expenses of someone to accompany the animal?

    1. Does your animal have pet insurance or a microchip? If so, what needs to be done to transfer the records to the new owner(s)?

    1. What does an ideal home look like? What does an acceptable home look like? What is completely unacceptable? Be honest about your animal and its attributes, behaviors, and needs. The more honest you are, the better chance your animal has of landing in the “right” home the first time and the less disrupted its life will be.

    1. If your animal will be transported across state lines, will it need special paperwork or health clearances, etc.?

    1. A descriptive “day-in-the-life” of your animal can help in placement as well as ensure that disruptions to your animal’s routine are minimized to the extent possible.

    1. Who is/are your animal’s veterinary care professionals? What is your animal’s medical and vaccination history? What medications is your animal on and from what pharmacy are they received?

    1. For multiple pet households, which ones are independent, and which are bonded to another? Can they be split up? Keep in mind that it can be difficult to place multiple animals in the same household.

    1. What clothes, leashes, collars, bowls, and other animal paraphernalia go with which animal?

    1. If the animal has won awards (ribbons, cups, plaques, etc.), does the new owner have the opportunity to receive the award paraphernalia or is it handled a different way?

As you can see, estate planning for animals is important and covers a range of decisions.  Because you will not know which animal you will own, if any, at the time of any potential disability or at your death, some of the planning can be generic.  A separate document that can be updated as the animals in your life change may be used to “fill in the guidance gaps” for specific animals, but not to distribute money.

Let Us Help With Estate Planning for Pets

Animals enrich our lives and deserve our attention in our estate planning.  To learn more about planning we recommend you attend our Workshop – The 7 Hazards to Your Estate Plan. To register or for more information, call (757) 279-8127 or contact us online.


Join us for a workshop to learn more about how to address your legal needs.
We offer complimentary consultations for all areas of practice. Contact us today.