How to Include Pets in Your Estate Plan

February 16, 2024
Many people overlook in their estate plans some of the most beloved members of the family: pets. Here's what to consider so that your animal companions enjoy the life they're accustomed to after you're gone.

In the last seven years of his life, Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld often professed his love for Choupette, his blue-eyed Birman cat. Choupette featured in product launches, became a social media influencer (263,000 Instagram followers and counting), and was even the subject of two books. Following Lagerfeld's death in 2019, however, she arguably became more famous as one of the rumored beneficiaries of his sizable estate, estimated to be well over $200 million.

Of course, you don't need to be an A-lister to care about the future of your pets. "For many people, pets are members of the family," says Susan Hirshman, director of wealth management at Schwab Wealth Advisory, Inc. "There's nothing eccentric about wanting to ensure they are well cared for after you're gone." 

Including your pet in your will

When thinking about the future of their pets, many people assume they simply need to designate a caretaker and leave instructions. "That's a good first step," Susan says, "but what if that person can't take care of them or doesn't adhere to your wishes?"

That's why it's a good idea to speak with an attorney or estate planning specialist about including your pet in your will. For the purposes of inheritance, it's important to know that most states regard pets as your personal property, so generally they cannot be beneficiaries. "You can't leave money or retirement accounts to your jewelry or your wine collection—the same principle applies to your pet," Susan says. 

Nonetheless, your will should name a caretaker for your pet and the care you expect them to provide. If this person is a trusted friend or relative, you may choose to leave them money to help them care for your pet. When planning this, consider the following:

  • Consult with the beneficiary caretaker: First, confirm that the person you name is up to the task and accepts the responsibility. It's also a good idea to name alternate caretakers to take over in case the designated person can't keep your pet. 
  • Make a budget: The amount you set aside for your pet's care should encompass all current and potential expenses, including routine veterinary appointments, food and grooming, boarding, medications, specialty treatments, pet insurance premiums, and a cushion for emergencies. "You might want to overestimate your pet's life span, especially if it's in good health," Susan says. 

Remember that a will must go through probate before its execution, which means there could be a lengthy period when your pet won't have any determined care. To avoid this, you may want to append a letter of final wishes to your will. Although not legally binding, this document outlines special instructions to your family—including who should take custody of your pet.

How your Schwab Wealth Advisor can help

Your Schwab Wealth Advisor can connect you to a trust and estate specialist who can assist you in discussing options for your pet and prepare you for meetings with your estate planning attorney.

Your Schwab Wealth Advisor can connect you to a trust and estate specialist who can assist you in discussing options for your pet and prepare you for meetings with your estate planning attorney.

When a trust makes sense

Despite your best intentions, a will doesn't offer guarantees when it comes to your pet's care. "Any money you leave to the animal's guardian is ultimately theirs, and your pet effectively becomes their property," Susan says. "If you want greater peace of mind over your pet's future and more control over how the funds are spent, you may want to consider setting up a pet trust."

With a trust, you can designate a trustee separate from the caretaker to carry out its terms, oversee its assets, pay the bills related to your pet's care, and hold your pet's guardian accountable to your instructions. A trust also bypasses probate, so its terms go into effect immediately. "There may be additional fees to establish the trust, so factor into your decision the age and health of your pet, the dollar amount you want to put aside, any unique guidelines you may have, and the potential caretaker's financial and personal circumstances," Susan says. "Then weigh the cost of a trust versus the level of oversight it can provide."

All 50 states and the District of Columbia have pet trust statutes, which primarily differ in the duration of the trust; most states terminate the trust after the death of the covered animal, while some specify a maximum number of years for the trust's existence (most commonly 21). "This is an especially attractive option for owners of exotic animals with higher life expectancies, such as tortoises, parrots, or fish," Susan says. 

With a trust, you can also designate a remainder beneficiary should there be any funds left after the pet's death. "The beneficiary can be the caretaker or anyone else you choose, including a nonprofit," Susan says. "As with any estate plan, it's important to review your trust's provisions regularly, especially when your pet's situation changes, such as their health status … or if they become Instagram stars."

The information provided here is for general informational purposes only and should not be considered an individualized recommendation or personalized investment advice. The investment strategies mentioned here may not be suitable for everyone. Each investor needs to review an investment strategy for his or her own particular situation before making any investment decision.

All expressions of opinion are subject to change without notice in reaction to shifting market conditions. Data contained herein from third-party providers is obtained from what are considered reliable sources. However, its accuracy, completeness, or reliability cannot be guaranteed.

Examples provided are for illustrative purposes only and not intended to be reflective of results you can expect to achieve.

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Schwab Wealth Advisory™ ("SWA") is a non‐discretionary investment advisory program sponsored by Charles Schwab & Co., Inc. ("Schwab"). Schwab Wealth Advisory, Inc. ("SWAI") is a Registered Investment Adviser and provides portfolio management for the SWA program. Schwab and SWAI are affiliates and are subsidiaries of The Charles Schwab Corporation.