Nationwide has partnered with FreeWill to provide this article to our readers. It does not constitute legal advice and is not a substitute for an attorney or law firm.
Your pet is a cherished part of the family. In the event of your untimely passing, you want to know for sure that they get all the love and care they deserve. Sadly, far too many people forget to include pet care requests in their wills, and because of that, a lot of pets wind up in limbo. Many are handed over to shelters or given to strangers every year as a result.
In the eyes of the law, pets are considered property, so you can’t use your will to leave them an inheritance. However, concerned pet parents can will assets that are specifically dedicated to caring for a pet by naming a “pet guardian,” a beneficiary for your pet (this is done using a pet clause, according to the inheritance experts at FreeWill).
FreeWill also helps answer other important questions like: What is a pet guardian in a legal sense, how do you establish one and why does it matter?
Including a pet clause in your last will and testament
When your estate is executed, all of your belongings are distributed in accordance with your wishes. Trusts are handed over, due balances are resolved and funds are disbursed. Legally, pets are considered a part of your estate, just like your home, investments or other possessions. If you don’t use your will to set out expectations for them after you’re gone, they could wind up with no clearly established caregiver.
Fortunately, you can use your will to leave them as a gift to someone, just like you would with any other property. To do this, list the recipient as a beneficiary in your will, and name the pet as what they’ll receive. If you have more than one pet, it’s important to be specific as to which pet is given to each caregiver. A lot of pet owners wish to leave a trust with the beneficiary to help pay for pet expenses as well.
What happens to your pet when you die?
There are a few scenarios that could take place for your pet when you die:
If you have a will with pet care directives, your pet will be transferred to the pet guardian you named, along with any funds set aside for care. If you established a pet trust (more on this later), access to the fund will be handed over to your trustee along with your pet. Your pet guardian will receive your final instructions to be followed in your absence.
If you have a will but didn’t mention your pet, then your pet may go to your residuary beneficiary. This person is who you designated to receive what’s left of your property after all other beneficiaries are paid out. They will be left without final directives and can make a decision for your pet on their own.
If you don’t have a will at all, then all property, pets included, are subject to state intestacy laws. This is where things can get messy. This usually means that a local probate court will appoint someone to handle the execution of your estate (as part of this, the assigned executor will also decide what happens to your pet). If you don’t have a spouse, parent or children to handle this process, responsibility may be handed off to a more distant relative.
Sadly, pets are often put into shelters under these circumstances, rather than moving in with family or friends.
Can I just leave money to my pet?
No, your pets can’t be granted money directly in your will. First, because they are considered property in a legal sense, they can’t receive funds directly any more than your car can. The second reason is more obvious: Pets will always need someone to care for them—even the smartest pup can’t drive to the pet store on her own.
This is where your pet guardian comes into play. They will receive ownership of your pet, along with funds designated for the care of that pet. Most standard pet clauses don’t legally require your guardian to spend the money on your pet, so always select someone who can be trusted.
Selecting a pet guardian
Becoming a pet guardian is a big responsibility, and not one to be taken lightly. Many birds, horses and reptiles can live for thirty years or more, and your beneficiary will be taking on responsibility for food, vet care, shelter and companionship for the duration of your pet’s life.
Choosing a pet guardian for your four-legged family members isn’t an easy decision. Obviously, you want to choose a responsible friend, family member or colleague that you know and trust, and someone who you know loves your pets. Always, always ask your nominee if they are up for the task. Even a close, animal-loving friend may not be in a position to take on one or several pets at a moment’s notice. If you have a number of pets, consider if you want one person to care for them all or if you’ll need a team of pet guardians.
If there’s no one in your life that you trust with your pets, you may wish to select a local rescue group as their beneficiary—just be sure to clear it with the organization first and consider leaving a donation to help offset costs.
If you have especially complicated pet care wishes, you might want to speak to an attorney to make sure they’re carried out.
Setting up a pet trust
If you plan on setting aside a large sum of money for your pets, you may want to create a pet trust. A pet trust is a fund that comes with legally binding obligations for use. Funds from the trust can only be used for your pet’s benefit and within certain instructions or guidelines.
When you set up a pet trust, you’ll also name a trustee. Chances are you’ll name your pet guardian to have legal authority over the trust after you pass. The funds should be enough to reasonably provide for care throughout your pet’s life. Keep in mind that managing a trust comes with a number of complexities, from planning for your pet’s life expectancy to managing fees. If you leave an excessive amount of money in a pet trust, your family members may also be able to challenge it in court.
Protect your four-legged family with a will
Your pet is a part of the family and protecting them is always a priority—that’s why you have pet insurance. Listing them in your will is another way to make certain that they get the care and love they deserve, even if you’re not around anymore.
Whether your pets are furry, feathery, scaly or somewhere in between, you can make sure they’re cared for by listing them in your will. You can create your free legal will using FreeWill, including a pet clause where you can name a guardian and care instructions for your pets. Get started today.
Nationwide®, FreeWill Co. and any referred attorney are not affiliated. Nationwide does not endorse any referred attorney.
They're part of your family. Make sure they’ll be cared for, no matter what, with a will. Nationwide can help you create your free and legally binding will in as little as 20 minutes today.