How Does Pet Care Work After the Owner Dies?

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Attorney, distinguished law professor

For many families living together with a pet, when one of the owners dies, there are other family members who can continue caring for the pet. But for those who live alone with a pet, planning for their care after your death becomes an even more important part of your estate planning. 

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Effective estate planning for one’s pet not only provides for the continued care of the animal, but it can be a great source of comfort and relief, knowing that your pet will be cared for the way you want it to be cared for after your death. 

There are several ways to plan for your pet after your death. This article will help you decide which way may be best for you and your pet.

What Typically Happens to Pets After an Owner Dies?

When a pet owner lives alone with a pet and the owner dies, the pet requires immediate attention and care, just as a minor child would require. If the owner has not made arrangements for the care of the pet upon their death, the pet will be dependent on the kindness of a family member, friend, or neighbor until the executor can make long-term arrangements. If there is no one to take the pet, it likely will be delivered to an appropriate shelter until a permanent caretaker is found.

Ideally, the owner will make arrangements during their life for someone to take custody of the pet if the owner dies. This should be someone the owner trusts, like a relative, friend, or neighbor. If the owner clearly expresses this intention, the animal can remain in the custody of the person the owner chooses.

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What Can an Executor Do If the Deceased Didn’t Plan For Their Pet?

Although many pet owners love their pets as if they were another member of the family, legally, a pet is considered “property” (just like a bicycle or picnic table) and becomes part of the owner’s estate when the owner dies.

But an executor cannot disregard the pet until the court distributes the decedent’s property to their legal heirs during the probate process. The executor must find appropriate care for the animal until a permanent caretaker can be identified to take ownership of the animal. 

The executor has several options:

  • Care for the pet. It is the executor’s responsibility to collect and maintain the decedent’s property until the court orders distribution of the property in a probate proceeding. So if the executor is able and willing, they can care for the animal themselves until the owner’s next closest living heir agrees to take custody of the animal through the normal probate process.
  • Find a voluntary caretaker. If the executor is not willing to care for the animal, they may find a relative, friend, or neighbor of the deceased owner whom they trust to care for the animal until the court awards ownership of the animal to the owner’s appropriate legal heir.
  • Take the pet to an animal shelter. The executor may always take the pet to an animal shelter that is willing to care for the animal until the probate process is completed and the rightful heir agrees to take ownership of the animal. Any fees for such care may be paid out of the estate as part of the cost of maintaining the owner’s property. 

Anyone named in the will or a living heir with an interest in the owner’s property can contest the executor’s plan for the care of the animal during the probate process. With that said, the executor can always seek the court’s intervention to determine who should care for the animal until the court determines who will become the pet’s new owner.     

How Can an Executor Follow the Deceased’s Wishes If They Did Plan for Pet Care?

If the owner did plan for the care of their pet in their will or another legal document, the executor may give the pet to the designated caretaker. The executor is responsible for strictly following the directions of the decedent. 

If the decedent directs the executor to pay the caretaker for providing care to the pet, the executor may use funds from the estate for this purpose, but the executor cannot guarantee that the beneficiary will use the funds to care for the pet. Likewise, if the decedent awards the pet to a named beneficiary but makes no mention of payment, then the beneficiary may receive the pet but must provide for the pet’s care themselves. 

Once the beneficiary receives the pet, it becomes the property of the beneficiary and there is no way for the executor to guarantee that the beneficiary will provide proper care for the animal. Giving a pet under one’s will is the same as giving a cherished piece of jewelry to a beneficiary. Once the beneficiary receives it, they are legally entitled to do with it as they please.

The only way an executor can make sure that the person who takes the pet provides proper care to the animal or uses any funds from the estate solely for this purpose is to give custody of the animal with conditions or any accompanying payment from the estate on the beneficiary’s proper care of the animal with requirements. The ways in which the owner may do this are described below.

How Can Someone Plan for Pet Care After They Die?

When considering how to plan for your pet after you die, you must consider the immediate and long-term care of your pet. This is especially so if you live alone with your pet.

For the immediate care of your pet in an emergency, you should have an Animal Information Card somewhere in your home (or in your wallet) where emergency personnel are likely to find it upon entrance into your home. This card might contain simple information about your animal that will be important for the safety of both the animal and the emergency responders.

For example, if you own a dog, you might include the following information on the card:

  • The name and description of the dog. Someone finding the dog in your home will need to know its name when finding a caretaker. It also may help them to interact with the dog if necessary. You should describe the dog (and any other animals you have) so they know they have accounted for all of the animals in the home.
  • Who you want to care for the dog. Give the name, address, and contact information for anyone with whom you have agreed may care for your dog in an emergency. It should be someone who is close by who can take the dog immediately. List a secondary caretaker if possible. 
  • Special instructions. Indicate clearly on the card any special instructions that emergency personnel and the caretaker will need to know to properly care for the animal, including:
    • Any medical conditions that require special care or attention
    • The name and location of the dogs veterinarian and any medicines the dog requires the location of the dog’s food
    • A description of the dogs regular eating and exercise habits   

In addition to the immediate concerns for your pet, you should provide for the long-term care for your pet on the occasion of your death. As an alternative to simply naming someone in your will and trusting that this person will care for your pet the way you want them to care for it, there are three ways to ensure that your pet is properly cared for in accordance with your wishes.

Draft a pet trust

Historically, the law prohibited a person from leaving money in their will directly to an animal—a beneficiary had to be human. Although the law allowed you to give money to a person to care for your pet, courts would not enforce such provisions, which were called “honorary trust” provisions because the decedent had to rely on the beneficiary “honoring” their wishes.

As of 2016, every state has adopted “pet trust” laws, which allow courts to enforce the terms of a trust directing the caretaker to provide specific care for the animal. Each state adopts these laws in either its “Probate Code” (which contains the laws that govern probate proceedings) or its “Trust Code” (which contains the laws applicable to trusts).

Both types of laws are generally the same but may differ in very specific ways. You should consult an attorney before drafting a pet trust to be sure your trust satisfies the applicable law in your state.

A pet trust is the same as any other trust in which the animal remains the property of the trust but you name a trustee to administer or enforce the terms of the trust. In the pet trust, you will direct the trustee to give your pet to a specific person whom you want to care for the animal.

You also will fund the trust with sufficient funds for the person to provide the care you want the animal to receive. For example, you might provide in the trust for the executor to pay the caretaker $200 per month for the continued care of the animal.

One of the most famous examples is Leona Helmsley, the famous billionaire hotel financier. In 2007, she created a pet trust for her pampered pup “Trouble.” According to Forbes magazine, she funded the trust with $12 million from her $8 billion estate, directing the executor to use the money to care for Trouble with:

  • A 28-room mansion in Connecticut
  • Diamond collars
  • A housekeeping staff
  • A full-time security team
  • A personal chef
  • A personal groomer
  • Staff persons to feed the dog from their fingertips so it did not have to eat from a bowl
  • Gourmet food, miscellaneous expenses, and expensive medical care 

Obviously, such care provisions are excessive, and a New York court ultimately reduced Trouble’s award to $2 million after Helmsley’s death. In a standard pet trust, however, you may direct the caretaker to provide specific care to your pet. The executor will pay the caretaker from the trust for providing the specific care that you require.

You should include in the trust a requirement for the executor or other named person to check on the pet periodically to be sure the caretaker is providing care as you directed. If the caretaker is not providing the required care, the executor may ask the court to enforce the terms of the trust or, since the animal still belongs to the trust, may find another caretaker.

Make a conditional gift

Drafting a pet trust can be complicated and may require the advice of an attorney. It also requires a trustee or other person to continually monitor the care of the animal. A trust also requires a regular payment schedule (depending on how payments are structured). 

An easier and perhaps more practical way to guarantee proper care for the animal while ensuring payment to the caretaker is to make an outright gift of the pet to the caretaker (so the beneficiary owns the pet) but condition a lump-sum or periodic payment on the proper care of the animal.

This still requires someone to check on the condition of the animal, but it prevents the caretaker from receiving payment but not actually caring for your pet. It also avoids the administrative costs associated with a pet trust.

Professional pet services

Another alternative is to hire a professional pet service to find an appropriate and loving home or shelter for your pet after your death. Fees for such services vary. You should research the various services that are available.

A final alternative

Some people consider including a provision in your will for your executor to humanely euthanize your pet after your death. Owners may feel they would not want their pet to suffer the loss of their beloved owner or think the pet would not do well in the care of someone else.

Instead, they feel it would be more humane to euthanize the animal. However, courts are extremely reluctant to enforce such provisions in wills as against public policy or unethical. In such cases, notwithstanding the owner’s wishes, a court may order the executor to find an appropriate home for the animal.

There Are Many Options to Ensure Proper Care for Your Pet After Your Death 

For many pet owners, the thought of being separated from their pet--even in death--is traumatic. Equally stressful can be worrying over who will care for your pet when you die? Will someone care for your pet the way you do? How can you plan for your pet now to guarantee they will be well cared for after your death?

There are many options available:

  • Leaving emergency care instructions
  • Naming an immediate caretaker
  • Designating a caretaker in your will
  • Using a pet trust
  • Making a conditional gift
  • Hiring a professional pet service to find appropriate care 

There are numerous options. However, all of these options require you to plan now, while you are living, to be sure your pet is properly cared for after your death. 

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