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November 9, 2016

Can You Protect Your Pet in Your South Carolina Estate Plan?

estate planning law attorney in Greenville SC

When people are tackling their estate planning, they often don’t think about their pets in the process. However, if you are an animal lover, there’s a good chance that you’ve got at least one pet who relies on your for their daily care. What happens to that pet when you pass away? If you haven’t made plans for your pet’s care in your estate plan, then he or she (or they) may end up on the streets, in a shelter, or even worse.

Perhaps, you haven’t thought of this before, but there is still time to ensure that your pet is taken care of when you are no longer there to provide for their basic needs. You restate planning attorney at the Anderson Law Firm will be happy to assist you with including your pet(s) in your estate plan in a way that ensures that your beloved family pets are well cared for if you pass away and leave them behind.

Pets are Part of the Family in Many US Homes

There are many people in the US who consider their pets to be a part of the family. The American Humane Society reports that over the past 40 years, the number of households with pets has nearly tripled. Roughly 180 million dogs and cats are a part of family households in the US, with nearly half of all American homes having at least one.

Beyond these numbers for cats and dogs, there are also millions of other pets in American homes, including about 16 million birds and 11 million reptiles. Then there are about 18 million pets of assorted smaller varieties, which include rabbits, hamsters, guinea pigs, and even rats and mice. And we haven’t even begun to count the number of fish that are kept as beloved pets in many homes, which accounts for roughly 150 million pets (fresh and salt water fish included).

So, if you own pets whom you consider to be a part of your family, whom you provide for with medical care, food, exercise, and affection, it is natural to worry about what is going to happen to these beloved members of your family if you pass away. You may have already established an estate plan to take care of your human family, but what about your animal family?

The Fate of Pets When their Owners Pass Away

For those who do not plan ahead for their pet’s welfare when they pass away, as is a very common mistake, because people simply don’t think of it, the fate of those pets can be quite depressing. In fact, there are more than 500 thousand dogs and cats, alone, who end up in shelters because their owners have either passed away or become incapacitated and incapable of caring for them any longer.

It is important to understand the state of mind that your relatives will experience when tragedy strikes and your health deteriorates or you pass away. It is likely that your pets will be the furthest thing from their minds and hearts. This isn’t because they don’t care, but because they are so focused on the tragic circumstances of their human losses. It may be days before anyone thinks of the fact that you’ve left a dog or cat behind as well. Then, when someone realizes that something must be done with the pet, they may be unable to find any friends or relatives who are willing and able to take in the pet and care for it like family, as you did. This is how so many pets end up in shelters when their owners pass away.

Even if someone is willing to take in your pet on a permanent basis, there may be legal complications here. To you, your pet is family. To the law, your pet is property. This means that your pet is part of your estate, and nobody is legally allowed to take ownership until after the process of probate has come to a close. At least, that is the case if you have not planned ahead for your pet’s welfare in your estate plan.

What You Can Do To Make Sure Your Pet is Taken Care Of

There are many different things that you can do to ensure that your pet is taken care of if something happens to you. For example, you can make a verbal agreement with a loved one about your wishes concerning the care of your pet. This is not the best of your options, because a verbal agreement is not going to be legally binding later. The person with whom you have shared your wishes has every right to ignore them when something actually happens to you.

In fact, the person may not even have a legal right to honor your wishes if there is any dispute. Then, if something happens to the person you’ve entrusted with your wishes concerning the pet, then there is nobody left to honor those wishes. You also have no way to provide for the financial needs of your pet with a verbal agreement.

Another option is to leave written instructions concerning your wishes about what should happen to your pet if you become unable to care for him or her or if you pass away. You would establish all of your wishes in these written instructions and keep them with your will and/or estate plan that you’ve already established. This is a bit better than a verbal agreement, because it is in writing. However, there are still a lot of the same problems with this option. The letter may not be legally binding, it does not allow for the financial needs of your pet, and – because your pet is still viewed as a part of your property or estate – there is no legal transfer of ownership that can be upheld within your written instructions.

The next possible solution is to use your Last Will and Testament to gift the pet to someone whom you know will be willing to provide for him or her. This ensures legal transfer of ownership, and also allows you to gift the funding that will be needed to meet your pet’s financial needs. Unfortunately, you cannot guarantee that the person who is given the pet and the funds to care for the pet will actually use those funds for this purpose. Further, because a will is only valid in the event of your death, this will only address your pet’s future if you pass away, not if you become incapacitated and unable to care for the pet.

Finally, and most optimal, is the option of establishing a Pet Trust. This method addresses all of the issues associated with the various other solutions. It ensures that your pet will be cared for in the event that you become incapacitated or in the event of your death. Your Pet Trust will designate a given caregiver, which will be legally binding. It will also designate a contingency caregiver, in case the first one passes or is unable to take on the responsibility. You can also provide funding for your pet’s care in a Pet Trust, while controlling the use of those funds. You can even maintain some control over how your pet is cared for, by establishing which vet you wish your pet to be taken to, and any other concerns you may wish to address.

Establishing a Pet Trust will also keep your pet out of probate, because trust assets are excluded from the probate process. Your pet will have the benefit of a smooth transition to his or her new owner, which, ideally, is someone you trust to provide the love and care that your pet deserves.

If you are concerned about the welfare of your pets should something happen to you, call the Anderson Law Firm to discuss how we can include your pets in your South Carolina estate plan.