By John Creahan

Part 1 in a 2-part series

Seattle and the entire Puget Sound region are among the most pet-friendly areas in the U.S., and we take our commitment to guardianship seriously. We cherish our pets, consider them family. We worry about whether our pets are getting the right foods, the safest toys, the best training and exercise, about whether they are properly socialized, going to the best veterinarians, and so on.

If you’ve ever loved, or are currently in love with a pet, you know the joy of sharing your life with an animal far outweighs the eventual heartache most of us bear when they leave us. It’s never easy, but we expect to outlive our pets. But what happens when they outlive us? Would your pets thrive in your absence?

One simple step can ensure they will: Include your pets in your estate plan. If you don’t already have an estate plan, get one — and include your pets. Here’s why.

Pets are property

In Washington State, pets essentially have the same legal status at your death as your sofa: They are personal property. In the absence of another direction in an estate plan, a pet passes to whoever would inherit your other personal property. This can be problematic — while you might want your father or your brother or your daughter to inherit your car or jewelry or sofa, he or she might not be the best person to love and care for your pet.

A hypothetical, but very real, example:

Sheila is a 26-year-old single woman with two dogs: a lab mix, Baxter, and a golden retriever, Teddy. She hopes to have children one day, but right now her dogs are her “babies.” She works hard to satisfy their needs for good nutrition, exercise, medical care, training and overall well-being. Sheila has a large social network of dog-loving friends.

An only child, Sheila has a great relationship with her parents, who live nearby. Her parents are touched but a little baffled by Sheila’s devotion to her dogs; they are the first to admit that they are not “dog people.”

When Sheila thinks of estate planning – which admittedly, she doesn’t often – she thinks it is for someone older, more mature, more settled than she is. But after hearing about Leona Helmsley and her extravagant pet trust, Sheila got to thinking about what would happen to Baxter and Teddy if she were to die unexpectedly.

As much as she loves her parents, Sheila knows Baxter and Teddy would be better off living with Emily, one of her dog-savvy and dog-loving friends. Although Sheila would like to have Emily care for her pets in the event of tragedy, she isn’t sure how that would work – or whether Emily could afford to care for the dogs for their lifetimes.

Sheila and Emily have promised each other that they will care for the other’s pets, but this plan is inadequate. Their informal arrangement presents numerous problems. If Sheila were to pass away without a will, her wishes regarding Baxter and Teddy would not be recorded. There would be competing interests: Sheila’s parents, who would inherit the dogs under Washington law, may want to keep the dogs out of a perceived sense of loyalty to Sheila, even though they aren’t the best caretakers; Emily would have no way to enforce Sheila’s wishes.

Can Sheila make this work? Yes. Instead of making insecure plans with well-meaning friends, Sheila should work with an estate planning attorney to create an estate plan to formalize her goals for her pets.

The issues facing Sheila are similar to the decisions a parent makes with regard to a guardian for a minor child. I encourage pet owners to think about who should care for their pets just as I encourage parents to think carefully about any guardian they name in their wills. A will gives you the power to legally choose who will care for your pet. Your wishes will be clear and enforceable. Having a formal plan also frees family members from the burden of having to make this decision for you when they’re already suffering emotional distress.

 

Next month: Part 2 of this series, including how to choose a pet guardian and paying for your pet’s care after your death.

 

John Creahan is the founder of Cairn Law, an estate planning and business transition law firm in Seattle. John has more than 15 years’ experience guiding individuals, families and businesses in legal matters related to estate planning, business law, charitable gift planning, and the formation and operation of public charities and private foundations.