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The Importance of Including Your Pet in Your Estate Plan

Our relationship with pets goes back thousands of years and over the course of time, their value as companions has grown to the point where we now consider them part of the family. As a result, pet owners often consult a Los Angeles estate planning attorney to ensure they are provided for in the event of their death.

Determine Your Pet's Needs

In 1965, Britain's Farm Animal Welfare Council developed the Five Freedoms for Animals. In 1993, the freedoms were adopted by the Association of Shelter Veterinarians to accommodate companion animals in shelters, but they have since been adopted internationally. Their freedoms reflect their basic needs.

Freedom from Hunger and Thirst

A nutritious diet that is specific for different animals, especially with dietary restrictions. Animals should always have access to clean drinking water.

Freedom from Discomfort

A safe environment that protects against the elements. Comfortable bedding with provisions for cold winters (blankets and jerseys) and hot summers (shade and cooling mats).

Freedom from Pain, Injury, and Disease

Veterinary care includes regular vaccinations, tick and flea treatment, deworming, and medication for illnesses or pain relief. Some pets need antidepressants to help them cope with trauma.

Freedom to Express Normal Behavior

Animals have genetic traits that they need to express. For example, Labradors were bred as hunting dogs. They need to express this need to avoid behavior problems. Pet parents can meet this need by participating in field trials, playing fetch, and doing scent work.

Freedom from Fear and Distress

This applies to emotional and mental suffering; for example, fear of punishment or confinement in a limited space with no enrichment opportunities, like being chained up in a cement courtyard.

It's essential that you include provisos in your estate plan so that the pet guardian can provide proper care. If you don't emphasize the importance of these freedoms as they relate specifically to your animal, their guardian might not meet an essential need, to the detriment of your animal's physical and psychological well-being.

Appoint a Pet Guardian

A pet guardian is responsible for caring for your pet when you die. It's an enormous responsibility because bringing a pet into their home will change the dynamic in their family, especially if they already have pets.

Consider your minor children when appointing a future caretaker. They have a special bond with your pet, which will help them cope with their grief. In this instance, they should be prepared to take the animal into their home.

If this isn't possible, appoint a pet care provider who is close to your children, so they can visit regularly.

Qualities of a Good Pet Guardian

Appointing a pet caregiver is one of the most important things you need to discuss with a lawyer who specializes in estate planning in California. They can provide legal advice regarding the qualities of a good pet guardian.

  • Is she in a position to look after your animal? Perhaps she lives in a small one-room apartment that can't accommodate your St. Bernard.
  • Can she manage the physical demands of pet guardianship, like walking a large St. Bernard?
  • Are there children in the home? Is your St. Bernard kid-friendly?
  • Does she have other animals, like a chihuahua who hates big dogs?
  • Is the location of her home suitable? Perhaps your St. Bernard is upset by loud noises and she lives above a busy nightclub.
  • Does she already have a relationship with your animal? For example, she frequently visits your home and your St. Bernard adores her.

Create a Pet Trust

Unfortunately, pets are considered personal property, which means they can't be beneficiaries. Fortunately, there are ways around that and one of them is engaging a Los Angeles estate planning lawyer to create a pet trust.

A pet trust is a legal arrangement that contains the funds necessary to look after your animal for the rest of their natural life. The appointed trustee holds the "assets" in the trust and manages all financial matters, including a monthly food allowance or emergency surgery.

One of the benefits of pet trusts is the legal obligation placed on the guardian. This means they can be sued for failing to abide by the trust's terms. 

What are Your Options for Financial Provisions

There are other options to provide financially for your pet. These provide for the ongoing care of your pet, including veterinary costs (pet insurance), and sundry expenses, for example, a new harness.

Legacy Arrangements

If no one you know can take care of your furry friend, you can look into programs that place pets with suitable people or families. Options include SPCA programs, veterinary school programs, and private animal shelters and rescue organizations.

Non-Legal Arrangements

In a non-legal agreement, you entrust your pet to someone who has promised to care for your animal but without a binding document. The agreement includes an amount of money specifically for your pet's well-being. So, you also trust them to use the money exclusively for your animal.

This option works best if there is no potential conflict regarding pet guardianship. If, for example, your sister and aunt both want to adopt your St. Bernard, you would do well to come to a written agreement signed in the presence of your estate planning attorney in Los Angeles, CA.

Provide Care Instructions

You must provide special instructions to ensure continuity for your pet. They're already mourning your death; changes to their routine or surroundings compound their emotional distress.

Detailed care instructions include:

  • Diet - Does your pet have allergies that require specific brands of food? Is your St. Bernard on a raw food diet?
  • Medical condition - Does your pet have an illness that requires chronic medication and frequent vet check-ups? Who is your preferred vet? Ideally, the one they've been seeing all along.
  • Physical exercise - How often is your pet walked? Where are they walked? If your St. Bernard is used to walking in the forest, walking on busy urban streets will be stressful.
  • Training - Does your pet attend training classes? Will your guardian keep up the classes? Which trainer or school do you prefer? Make it clear that they must go to a force-free, positive reinforcement school.
  • Routine - Routine is important to dogs, especially after a major upset. Specify meal times, walk time, chew time, etc. Your guardian may not be able to maintain the routine, but at least they can see how your pet's life is structured.

Communication with Family and Loved Ones

Your family knows you'll include your pets in estate planning, but you should still arrange a meeting to cover the details.

Don't be offended or upset if your chosen pet guardian declines. They probably have good reasons, with your pet's well-being foremost.

Choose a backup caretaker in case something happens to the appointed guardian. For instance, in the event of disability, they can't care for your St. Bernard. The guardian could die. You want to know that the alternate caretaker will adopt your pet, so they won't be shunted from pillar to post.

Regularly Update Your Estate Plan

You should revise your estate plan if anything in your pet's circumstances changes. For example, they develop health issues that need expensive medication.

Remember to advise your pet guardian of any changes in the type of care your pet now requires.

Ensure Your Beloved Pet's Future with McKenzie Legal & Financial!

McKenzie Legal and Financial provide a variety of specialized estate planning services, including niche pet trust lawyers in Los Angeles. We're passionate about the safety and well-being of your pets, ensuring that every legal device is leveraged for their ongoing care and comfort.

Call 562-594-4200 for a free consultation or complete the contact form on our website and get peace of mind regarding your pet's future.

Thomas McKenzie Law
Estate Planning Attorney in California. Full-service law firm specializing in estate plans, wills and trusts, long-term care, and financial consulting. Thomas L. McKenzie received his Juris Doctor degree from Western State University College of Law, in Fullerton, California. While working full-time at night and attending full-time daily classes, Tom graduated law school with honors in 1993.

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