How to Include Pets in Your Estate Plans

Should you leave money for your dog in your will?Should you leave money for your dog in your will?Even on a bad day, I can't imagine life without my dog Lulu. My mother enjoys reminding me that Lulu has no reason to leave - even if the door stood wide open. Evidently, the dog has trained me well. But neither of us is getting any younger, and I do think about would happen to Lulu if I weren't around.

Would another caregiver know that she loves peanut butter but hates bananas? Would they check behind her food bowl for pills because that's her favorite hiding place?

Thinking about death can feel morbid, but a good game plan is the best way to ensure that pets are protected. Here are a few tips to help you establish a long-term pet care plan.

Create a pet care plan - and share it
Write a detailed list of everything associated with caring for your pet. Include dietary restrictions, favorite toys and even temperament issues. All of this information will help identify friends or family members who may be up for the task.

Also see: These pets inherited a fortune

"Once you have completed the list of prospective caregivers, more than one person should know about it," says Kim Bressant-Kibwe, trust and estates counsel for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). "Also, have a backup for that person. Who knows what circumstances are down the road?"

The next important step involves having a heart-to-heart discussion with anyone at the top of your list. Make sure they understand what's involved and find out whether they want the responsibility of caring for your pet. Don't make assumptions.

"Nobody likes surprises," says Atlanta attorney Steve Dubner, adding that your top choice isn't required to accept the responsibility. "It may be that a child is living in an apartment that doesn't permit pets or job requirements mean they are not in a position to care for a pet."

Consider setting aside money for pet expenses
While not essential, it does help to set aside funds to care for your pet after you've gone. Dubner has helped clients establish pet trusts ranging from $1,000 to $10,000, but he notes that it can be a difficult task.

"To some extent you're projecting into the future," he says. "If the pet has either a long life or extraordinary expenses, it's very hard to predict at the outset."

Bressant-Kibwe stresses that pet owners consider all annual expenses, including boarding fees, food, toys, and the pet's general health. Consult with your vet for assistance. It also helps to check sites like AKC.org, which provide general breed and life expectancy information.

"Consider the breed, then estimate life expectancy times annual expenditures, and remember that older pets are more expensive," Bressant-Kibwe says.

Do the legal legwork
Pet owners have several options for legally establishing long-term care, including a contract, will or pet trust. Even though Bressant-Kibwe's husband would inherit their 8-year-old maltipoo, she chose to draft a contract stipulating care for the pooch.

"I have arranged for [my husband] to take over in the event that something were to happen to me," she says. "If both of us die, I have a sister, another relative - and three or four backups."

Most pet owners opt to provide for pets in their will, Dubner says. If you are single, this is the best way to ensure pets are cared for after your death. Otherwise, the next legal heir is entitled to your pet.

"That person may not even like your pet," Bressant-Kibwe says. "People owe it to their wards, their little furry friends, to figure out a plan."

Pet owners also can establish a pet trust, which is a more costly option. This legal agreement sets aside money or property for a trustee, someone who makes payments to your designated caregiver. Pet trusts ensure that animals are cared for - even if someone contests the will. A judge also holds trustees accountable for how funds are distributed.

To establish a pet trust, owners also must specify a trustee, a backup trustee, a caregiver and a backup caregiver. Several states have laws in place establishing general guidelines for pet trusts; the ASPCA lists those states on its website. If your state does not have pet trust legislation in place, Dubner says the pet planning process becomes more complicated.

Consult an attorney or estate planner
Laws regarding estate planning can vary from state to state, so it pays to consult a professional. Bring your detailed list of instructions, as well as contact information for your designated pet caregivers - and be clear about your wishes.

"In estate planning, attorneys don't always ask about pets. So it is not something that necessarily comes up in the discussion," Dubner says. "Make it part of the discussion."

Establish an emergency plan
In addition to a contract, will or pet trust, Bressant-Kibwe suggests that you create an emergency contact list that includes friends or neighbors who can quickly reach your pets. Carry a copy in your wallet or purse, just in case.

"When medical personnel go through your wallet, they will see that you have animals and put that emergency plan into place," she says. "It could be the difference between life and death - keeping your pet from sitting for weeks with no water, no food, no attention."

Related pet stories: