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You Can’t Take Them With You (Estate Planning For Your Pets)

Studies show that somewhere between 12% and 27% of pet owners include their pets in their wills. Clearly, I’m not alone in making provisions in case my cats outlive me. I also feel honored to be named as the caretaker (godparent) for dogs and cats in the wills of several friends and clients.

Kitty hanging out near Jim Morrison’s grave in Père Lachaise Cemetery. This smart cat knows she’ll get attention and treats by charming visitors like me.

We can’t use our wills to leave money or property directly to our pets, but we can use our wills to leave our animals – and money to care for them – to a caretaker or godparent. There are a variety of options when planning for your pets’ life after your own death, from making a simple and non-legal bequest-type arrangement, to creating a trust for your pets and their next caregivers, to leaving your pets in the care of an organization that will rehome them.

If you want to make these kinds of plans, contact an attorney or lawyer who can walk you through the process. I can highly recommend several attorneys in the Olympia WA area who have helped me and my clients.

Jump to:

First steps
The first few steps are ones you can take on your own:

  1. Decide who you would trust to care for your pets after you die, have a candid conversation with them about how you want your pets cared for and how their expenses will be met. You need to make sure that the person or organization you choose is actually willing to do this. Give this person’s contact information to your pet care provider and your attorney.
  2. Provide loved ones with contact info for your pets caretaker. That way they can get the most up-to-date information about how to care for the animals. This person will probably be able to step in and care for the pets immediately, even if it takes a while for them to be taken in by the people named in your will.
  3. Create an “animal care card” to carry in your wallet. This card tells emergency workers that if you’re injured, they need to make sure someone helps those animals who depend on you. In my wallet, I have a card with medical information (my doctor’s contact info and a list of medications I take) and emergency contacts, which includes my pet sitter.
  4. Write a more detailed “animal care document” to place in your files with your estate planning documents. Providing detailed information about their care is extremely helpful to anyone who helps provide long-term care for your pets. I’ve included a list of details that I expect someone to follow if they re-home my cats. This includes the requirement that they remain indoor-only cats and that they go to a non-smoking home. You can include anything you want in this document.
  5. Include signs on your front doors and/or windows that inform emergency workers that there are animals inside the house.

Simple, bequest-type arrangements in wills

Including a clause like the following in your will is very easy but leaves loop-holes. ”I leave my black lab (Doodle) and $1,500 to my brother Joe Doe, with the hope that the money will be used for Doodle’s care and maintenance. If Joe does not survive me, I leave Doodle and $1,500 to my daughter Jenny Doe, with the hope that the money will be used for Doodle’s care and maintenance.” This type of arrangement is legal in the sense that Doodle will legally belong to Joe or Jenny. However, Joe and Jenny have no legal obligation to use the money on Doodle – they would receive the money outright.  If they used the money for other things, there would be no legal recourse.


This is sorta like establishing godparents for your pets. These are more complicated and more expensive, but establish a legally binding agreement for someone to care for your pet. And if the person you name as caretaker does not follow your instructions, they can be sued. Most people will find that trusts are almost more effort than they’re worth. If you’re leaving thousands of dollars for the care of your pets, it’s worth the effort. If you’re leaving less than that, a bequest arrangement might be a good way to go.

Legacy arrangements to shelters, veterinarians, or pet care providers

Lots of organizations allow people to leave their pet to a trustworthy caretaker after you die.  For example:

  • SPCA programs
  • Private animal sanctuaries
  • A local nonprofit rescue organization (If you adopt your pets from local rescue organizations, contact those organizations to ask if they have provisions for re-homing their former animals)
  • Your veterinarian
  • Your pet sitter

If you don’t make specific arrangements

For people who don’t make arrangements for their pets in their estate plans, what happens to their animals depends on what other arrangements they’ve made. If they have a will, their pets will go to their “residuary beneficiary” (that’s the person they’ve name to get the remainder of their estate after any specific gifts have been doled out). Property and pets of people who haven’t made a will are distributed according to the laws of their state. Most of the pets end up in shelters and there’s no guarantee that the shelter will rehome them. Many shelters simply euthanize animals that they consider “unadoptable” for one reason or another: age, medical condition, temperament, etc.

If this article is helpful & you’re able, please consider sending a thank-you tip/donation. Even small donations will help me keep my business running during the travel industry slump that has brought pet sitting to a screeching halt. Thank you! (FYI, for a sliding scale fee starting at $30, I offer consultations to help people solve their specific cat-related issues. Let me know what I can help you with.)

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