What Happens to my Pets if I Die?

By: Attorney Amanda N. Follett and Attorney James A. Spella, Schloemer Law Firm, S.C.

Whether you are a “dog person”, a “cat person”, or you have more expensive obsessions (ahem, all of you “horse people” out there), having a plan in place for your furry friends is very important so that you can make sure that they have a long, happy life—no matter what happens to you.

Unfortunately, lack of planning leads to hundreds of thousands of pets being left homeless and worse—euthanized—each year when their owners die without a plan.  Over 500,000 animals were euthanized last year alone.

A pet becomes part of the family.  A pet is treasured for its companionship. A pet is valued by its owner during their lifetime.  Individuals plan for many things during their lifetimes:   career paths, financial planning, estate planning, garden layout, vacations, dinner plans, you name it, we plan it.  We even write long lists for where our personal property (jewelry, tools, guns, furniture, etc.) should go when we die.

But as to our valued pet, so often there is no planning.  So, unless those that follow a deceased owner have compassion and arrange for pet care, the pet – in many instances – will be euthanized. In addition, your pet may need care if you become incapacitated.

Do not assume that a family member or other “good Samaritan” will arrange for the care of your pet.

The Law on Pets

The law generally treats pets as personal property, i.e., the same as furniture, household goods, etc.  Accordingly, you can plan for a pet the same as you would plan for other personal property when you die.  For example, you can leave a “tangible personal property” list to state who your property should go to, including your pets.  If you don’t have a plan, your family can dispose of your pets the same as they would dispose of other property, and they have no obligation to care for your pets.

Wisconsin law specifically recognizes a Trust for pets.  Under Wisconsin law, a Trust may be created to provide for the care of an owner’s animal. The Trust terminates upon the death of the animal or, if the Trust was created to provide for the care of more than one animal alive during an owner’s lifetime, upon the death of the last surviving animal.

What to do?

Ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Who will take care of my pets if I die?

First, consider who would be your preferred pet caregiver.  You should discuss your wishes with that person, and find out if they are willing to assume the responsibility.

Put your pet caregiver’s name and instructions in writing, and keep these instructions with your estate planning documents.

  1. Who will pay for my pet’s care if I die?

A family member may wish to care for a pet, but might not have the money to do so.

It is estimated that it costs $600-$700 to care for one cat for one year. This does not include any emergency vet visits. A caregiver can plan to spend around $1,400-$4,300 to care for a dog for one year. With emergency vet visits, the cost of owning a dog is more in the range of $1,400-$14,000 per year.  Yikes. And the cost to care for a horse—we won’t even go there.

To help a caregiver pay for care, consider a monetary bequest to the pet caregiver in your estate plan documents. In deciding on the amount, consider the age of your pets, their life expectancy, and additional funds for emergency vet bills and your pet’s end of life vet bills.  For example, your planning could provide for a specific total amount, or a specific amount per pet.

Your estate planning can also specify that your Trustee or Executor should make sure your pets receive a veterinary checkup and any needed care before they go to live with their new caregiver.

You can also consider a formal Pet Trust in your estate plan documents and name the pet caregiver as the Trustee of the Pet Trust.  However, this option is only appropriate if you are planning on leaving a substantial amount in trust for the care of your pets, as establishing a specialized Trust is more expensive than your other options.  That being said, if you have the means to do so, setting up a Pet Trust can be well worth the investment.

Next Steps

As with all matters in life and death, thoughtful planning provides the best results.  So, do not forget your pet, who without you may not have a friend.

Contact Attorney Amanda N. Follett or one of our estate planning attorneys if you want to discuss how to provide for your four-legged friends in case of your incapacity or death.

Attorney Amanda N. Follett is an attorney at Schloemer Law Firm, S.C. whose practice focuses on corporate and business law, estate planning, and real estate. She currently has three cats (Cordelia, Rum Tum Tugger, and Beau) and two standard poodles (Ellie and Buddy).

Attorney James A. Spella frequently advises clients on matters related to estate planning, business succession planning, and business organization and contracts. He sadly has no pets, but has 17 grandchildren who have their own beloved furry friends.

Originally published: June 15, 2021

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Disclaimer: The information contained in this post is for general informational purposes only and is not legal advice. Due to the rapidly changing nature of law, Schloemer Law Firm makes no warranty or guarantee concerning the accuracy or completeness of this content. You should consult with an attorney to review the current status of the law and how it applies to your unique circumstances before deciding to take—or refrain from taking—any action.  If you need legal guidance, please contact us at 262-334-3471 or [email protected].