For the average person, the primary goal of estate planning is ensuring that family members are provided for in the event of death or disability. If that describes your number one reason for having an estate plan in place, ask yourself if you have included all of your family in that plan? How could you possibly forget a member of your family, you may be wondering. If you have a beloved pet that you consider part of the family, you may very well have failed to include Fido in your existing estate plan because you didn’t realize you could do so. The estate planning attorneys at Hedeker Law, Ltd. explain how to ensure that Fido is taken care of in the event of your absence, just like other family members.
Americans Really Love Their Pets!
Americans take a rather unique approach to animals compared to the rest of the world in that we stopped viewing animals as nothing more than assets and started considering them family members a long time ago. Empirical data backs that contention up. The U.S. comes in number one in both dog and cat ownership. Americans own 70 million dogs, twice the number owned by second runner-up Brazil, and about 75 million cats, almost 50 percent more than number two, China. We also top the list of fish owners and come in third in bird ownership. Collectively, we spend $50 billion a year on our pets in the United States with one in four owners spending money on professional photographs of their pet and one in three buying birthday presents for their family pet. Sadly, over half a million dogs and cats also end up in shelters each year in the U.S. as a result of the death or incapacity of their owner. The harsh reality is that when tragedy strikes in the form of death or serious illness, family members and friends often forget about the family dog or cat. Even worse, sometimes the family pet is viewed as too much of a burden and is intentionally abandoned. The only way to ensure that this doesn’t happen to your beloved pet is to plan ahead for his/her care and maintenance by including pet planning in your estate plan.
Pet Planning Options
Like most other estate planning decisions, there is not a right or wrong way to include Fido in your comprehensive plan. You need to know the options, however, to make an informed decision. The most common ways to plan for Fido’s care include:
- Verbal agreement – people frequently make the mistake of relying on nothing more than a verbal agreement with a family member or friend to care for their pet in the event of their death or disability. There are numerous problems with this option. First, your intended caregiver could be unable or unwilling to fulfill the agreement when the time comes and there is no legal way to enforce the agreement. Second, although you may not view your pet as your property, the law does, and a verbal agreement does not legally transfer ownership. Finally, a verbal agreement does not provide a funding method for the continued care and maintenance of your pet.
- Gifting in a Last Will and Testament – using a Will to “gift” your pet to a designated caregiver does resolve the issue of the legal transfer of ownership; however, it does not solve all of the issues found in a verbal agreement. For example, it does not legally obligate your caregiver to take over the care and maintenance of your pet nor does it provide a satisfactory funding method. You can also gift funds that are intended to be used to care for your pet; however, once gifted in a Will, the funds become the property of the beneficiary to do with as he/she pleases. In addition, gifting a pet in a Will does not address the possibility of your incapacity because the terms of a Will only become relevant upon your death.
- Pet trust – a pet trust resolves all the issues found in the other options. A pet trust operates just like any other trust, requiring you to name a Trustee to oversee the administration of the trust and allowing you to transfer “property” into the trust. The funds you use to fund the trust can be used to care for your pet according to your wishes which can be expressed in the terms of the trust. Unlike a Will, a trust can cover the possibility of your incapacity as well as your death. Most importantly, using a trust means that everything is legally enforceable.
Contact Estate Planning Attorneys
Please feel free to download our FREE estate planning worksheet. If you have questions or concerns regarding pet planning in Illinois, contact the experienced Illinois estate planning attorneys at Hedeker Law, Ltd. by calling (847) 913-5415 to schedule an appointment.