Although people refer to their pets as “members of the family”, “like our children”, etc., they are often overlooked when putting together a will, trust, or general durable power of attorney.
Now, rest assured – if you already have an estate plan then you don’t necessarily have to change it. Michigan law considers pets to be “tangible personal property”. Therefore, when you die, your beloved pets would pass to your surviving spouse or beneficiaries in the same way as your estate planning documents transfer your furniture, jewelry, etc. But as pet owners, we know the importance of planning further for who they will pass to and how that will work.
A simple approach would be to add specific directives to your will or trust identifying (i) the caregiver of your pets (including at least one substitute), and (ii) which person/organization should receive the pets if the caregiver cannot keep the pets long-term (including an instruction that if an animal shelter is selected, that it be a no-kill animal shelter). We also recommend adding the same directives into your general durable power of attorney to cover any period of legal incapacity or disability. By adding these details to your estate plan, your loved ones will be able to follow your directions rather than try to make such important decisions without your guidance.
Other items to consider adding to your will or trust, beyond just naming a caregiver, include:
- How your pets need to be cared for (e.g. food and diet, daily routines, sleeping preferences, etc.)
- Any limitations that your pets have with socialization with other pets, interaction with people (especially children), etc.
- Who you use as your pets’ veterinarian and where there are records of vaccinations
- Any special concerns breeding, spaying/neutering, etc.
- Whether the trustee/personal representative should monitor the caregiver’s actions and the welfare of your pets
- How your pets remains should be handled when they die
Although the above may be sufficient, most animal lovers want to go a step further by creating a “pet trust”. This can be a stand-alone trust or language put in a new or existing trust.
The ability to create a pet trust is expressly authorized by Michigan’s Estate Planning and Protected Individuals Code. The main benefit of this approach is that you can set aside a specific amount of money that can be used to provide for the expenses of caring for your pets, as well as providing extra compensation to your pets’ caregiver. Without this mechanism, there is no other way to specifically earmark funds for your pets, as their status under the law as “personal property” does not allow you to include them as beneficiaries of your estate. This in-depth planning will also address what would happen to money in the pet trust upon the last of your pets to pass away.
We acknowledge that this detailed planning is not for everyone. But without provisions that specifically refer to your pets, you are leaving important decisions to others who almost assuredly do not have the same love and knowledge of your pets as you do.
If you have any questions or would like to discuss updating your estate plan to more specifically cover your pets, please do not hesitate to contact us.