Our Guide to Estate Planning for Dogs

What happens to your dog if you die first? Learn about options, including pet trusts and pet protection agreements, to ensure your dog gets taken care of after you are gone.

Whitney C. Harris  |  Jun 16th 2015


Having a dog is a lot like having a young child. You feed, bathe, and care for a relatively helpless creature whom you love unconditionally. And part of nurturing your little loved one is making worst-case scenario plans for if you’re ever not around or unable to provide care.

While we prefer not to think about such sad potentials, it’s a good idea to always be prepared. So to get some insights into the matter, we chatted with Gerry W. Beyer, Governor Preston E. Smith Regents Professor of Law at Texas Tech University School of Law, and attorney Rachel Hirschfeld, author of Petriarch: The Complete Guide to Financial and Legal Planning for a Pet’s Continued Care. Here’s what they recommend all dog owners do when planning their estates.

Make sure your pooch is left in good hands.

There are four basic types of coverage: a traditional pet trust, a provision in your will (depending upon where you live, a typical estate plan drafted by a lawyer can cost anywhere from $500 to $2,000 to create), a pet protection agreement, and an informal arrangement that you make on your own with a friend or family member. Here’s what you need to know about each of them.

Pet trusts

In a pet trust, the owner specifies instructions for care and money, or other property, to fund it (disbursed over time), along with a separate caregiver and trustee. The caregiver is intended to look after the dog much as the owner would have, while the trustee oversees the caregiving and any relevant expenses. It’s important to indicate whether the caregiver is simply being reimbursed for pet expenses or whether she will receive an additional distribution from the trust for taking care of Fido.

There’s no legal minimum or maximum to how much you can leave, although Beyer recommends against an outrageous sum, which could cause family members to contest the matter. What’s more, some court decisions and state statutes have declared that leaving an excessive amount means the court has the ability to reduce it.

It’s important that your agreement goes into effect immediately upon your inability to care for your dog.

Three types of trusts exist: traditional (free-standing), statutory, and a pet protection agreement pet trust. The first allows the flexibility to provide for your dog the way you prefer, but it requires more planning and costs more than other options. The second is a simpler approach as it requires only a line or two in the will, but, because of that, you’re not able to provide as much direction or exert as much control. The third goes into effect immediately upon the inability of the owner to provide care and requires the pet to be given back if the owner recovers.

Currently, about 48 states authorize statutory pet trusts. “This is good for smaller estates, for people who have, say, $500, to take care of their dog,” Professor Beyer says. Pet trusts can also be created while the owner is alive, so the dogs are covered should the owner suddenly be unable to care for them due to severe injury, illness, or advanced age. “Pet trusts are increasingly common because more lawyers are now aware of how to do them and the importance of creating them,” Beyer adds.

Will provision

This easy-to-implement and affordable option involves including a provision in an existing will that leaves your dog to a chosen beneficiary, along with money if desired. In this arrangement, however, the beneficially isn’t legally obligated to follow any care instructions for your pet that you provide. Moreover, the payment distribution is one lump sum and you cannot guarantee it will be spent according to your wishes. Additionally, the probate process (when the will is administered) can take some time, leaving your dog in limbo. It largely depends upon how the system works in your particular state.

A federally protected arrangement ensures that your dog will be cared for according to your wishes.

“In some, it’s cumbersome, and in others it’s quick,” Beyer says. For this reason, it is often a good idea to arrange for a pet trust to take effect while the owner is alive. “True, it’s a hassle but then there’s a guarantee there’s no gap in the pet’s care,” he says.

What’s more, the will provision requires that the pet wait until the will is read and the courts may disagree with the arrangement, according to Hirschfeld, who says that the provision is not federally protected. For those reasons, it’s smart to also have a free-standing pet trust or pet protection agreement.

Pet protection agreement

This legal document establishes a federally protected fiduciary responsibility and doesn’t require funds (although they can be included) or a lawyer to draft or execute it. It specifies the caregiver and preferred methods of care, which can be anything from always giving the dog access to a special blanket to feeding the pooch at a certain time of day. Moreover, it can apply in cases where an owner is still alive but unable to care for her pet.

A pet protection agreement can leave specific instructions for care.

“The goal is ongoing, continued care if the owner is in any position where he or she can’t take care of the pet for a short time period or a permanent [duration],” Hirschfeld, the Pet Protection Agreement® pet trust creator, says.

The cost for a pet protection agreement is minimal — anywhere from $39 to $79 — although Hirschfeld has created them free of cost for anyone who can’t afford one. The agreement is available through LegalZoom, where you can fill out a questionnaire and sign the document. It also includes a limited power of attorney and similarly limited healthcare proxy, so that any specified guardian can pay for the pup’s vet bill.

Informal arrangement

As its name implies, an informal arrangement has no enforceability, so the pet owner really has no assurances that his or her pet will get the protection and care desired. Beyer says it’s very simple: “I leave Rover and $1,000 to my best friend,” and then you just hope it goes as planned. Of course, there’s nothing to keep that person from sending the pup to the pound and going on vacation. You assume a close friend would never do such a thing, but you can never know for sure.

Finding a capable and willing caregiver well ahead of time is a good idea.

More advice from the experts

In all cases, it’s a good idea to speak to a family member or friend who is good with animals well ahead of time and ask if he or she would be willing to step in if you become disabled or die.

“Explain how it would work, and that it’s no different than what you do when you ask someone to be the guardian of your minor child,” Beyer suggests. But don’t put pressure on them to say yes. You want an honest answer and a willing caregiver. If you sense any hesitation, you should consider asking someone else. Keep in mind that for some dogs, you will need to make sure the person can handle a large and powerful animal or potential liability. A Pit Bull, for instance, could increase homeowner’s insurance.

When you do find that capable and willing caregiver, be sure to specify the preferred medical care and which veterinary office to use for your pet, alongside your wishes for: food and treats, exercise, socialization, grooming, crates and beds, dog-walking or pet-sitting, etc. Then, set aside enough money to cover both regular care and also unexpected expenses, determined by how much you spend annually multiplied by how many years you expect your dog to live.

Make life without you as comfortable as possible for your pet.

And this isn’t just good advice for the rich or the elderly. “Anyone who cares about what happens to the pet, no matter how healthy or young you are” can benefit, according to Beyer. “I’ve seen too many cases where the family just comes and takes the pet to the shelter,” he says.

In fact, Beyer says that most people die without a will and without a plan. Currently, only a small portion of pet owners make provisions for their furry friends in their wills.

Finally, it’s wise to post a note in your home and also carry one in your wallet specifying who is to take care of your dogs if you are unable to do so, along with his or her contact information. This will give you peace of mind and ensure your beloved animals are covered.

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