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Can I include my pets in my estate plan?

Can I include my pets in my estate plan?

golden retriever dog holding an umbrella

When a cat owner in California died, his family took the feline to a shelter to be euthanized. According to The Humane Society, an animal organization called BrightHaven stepped in to save the Siamese cat.

Many pets whose owners die are not as lucky, as the Humane Society points out that as many as 500,000 animals end up in shelters when owners die or become incapacitated and there is no plan in place.

For people in Illinois and across the country who have pets, it is important to note that the animals can have legal rights as outlined in an estate plan. Figuring out how to address furry friends correctly is the trick.

Providing legal protection

The Humane Society estimates that roughly 27 percent of pet owners who have a will in place make sure there is a provision included for their pets. However, as the organization points out, simply leaving a dog or cat to heirs is typically insufficient. Wills are not enacted immediately and they do not enable someone to distribute funds for the animal’s care over time.

The Humane Society instead suggests setting up a pet trust, which would entail the following:

  • Appointing a caregiver
  • Allowing a trustee to give money to the caregiver for the pet
  • Providing for regular checkups to ensure the pet is healthy and in good living conditions

It is possible to list that trustee as the beneficiary of a life insurance policy, which would provide the person with immediate money to designate toward pet care. It is a good idea to have a trustee hold the money for the pet and enlist another person to care for the animal to ensure a system of checks and balances.

The Illinois Pet Trust Act allows for a judge to reduce the amount of money that may be allotted to pet care, which would prevent someone from leaving millions of dollars to a dog. According to the Illinois State Bar Association, once the pet dies, any money left over in a trust may be designated to a beneficiary as inheritance, or it will be given to the decedent’s heirs.

Other considerations

Experts agree that discussing plans for a pet with others is a good idea. This ensures that the person who will be taking care of the animal is a willing participant. Pet owners may want to alert a veterinarian, family and pet-sitters about plans, which can help solidify that wishes will be kept. For extra protection, an owner may want to appoint a secondary caregiver in the event that something happens to the initial designee.

Anyone with questions regarding how to incorporate pets into estate planning should consult an attorney.

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