How to Include Pets in Your Estate Plan in Washington State

How to Include Pets in Your Estate Plan in Washington State

Estate planning is commonly associated with preparing for asset distribution and financial management in the event of the estate plan owner’s incapacitation or death. However, an estate plan can protect more than just people and what they have worked so hard during their lifetimes to build. A carefully crafted Washington state estate plan can also protect pets. 

For many people, pets hold a special place in their owners’ hearts and are considered family members. But despite the warm sentiment, pets are considered to be property under Washington state law nonetheless, which means you cannot account for them in your will in the same way you would a human being. There are, however, ways to include a pet in your estate plan in Washington state should you die or become incapacitated and unable to care for them. 

Given how many responsibilities and expenses surround pet care, recognizing pets’ needs in estate planning has become more common in recent years. With this trend in mind, here is what you need to know about estate planning for pets and how to get started. But first off, a discussion about why you might want to include your pet in your estate plan.  

Why might you want to include your pet in your estate plan?

You might want to include your pet in your estate plan for numerous reasons. Among those reasons are:

1. To give you peace of mind.

Including your pet in your estate plan creates a roadmap for them to have their needs met in your absence. By creating provisions for their care while you are alive, you can rest easy knowing they will continue to be loved and cared for in the way you intend, even in your absence.

2. To identify responsible caregivers.

When you include your pet in your estate plan, you can designate a caregiver (and alternates) for your pet. A caregiver is someone who would assume the responsibility of caring for your pets if you cannot. Designating a caregiver allows you to choose someone you trust, someone who understands your pet’s needs and willingly promises to provide them with a safe and loving home. 

When choosing potential caregivers, discuss your intentions with the individual beforehand. There is always the chance they will not want the responsibility or believe they will be unable to fulfill the role.

3. To arrange financial support for your pets.

Pets come with many financial obligations, which can become quite expensive, especially as time goes on and a pet ages. By including your pet in your estate plan, you can designate funds specifically for care. Consider the cost of food, veterinary care, grooming, and other necessities when calculating your designation.

4. To maintain stability for your pets.

Pets are happiest in a routine that is familiar to them. To minimize disruption in your pet’s life, you can include detailed instructions about their routine in your estate plan. For example, you can include a description of their existing living arrangement, dietary preferences, and any medical instructions you need to communicate to a new owner. This way, your pet can transition into their new home without any unnecessary hassles or delays.

5. To establish recognition under the law and enforceability.

Including your pet in your estate plan via a legally binding document, such as a pet trust, increases the likelihood your wishes will be recognized and legally enforced. Legally binding documents provide a solid legal foundation for your pet’s care and hold accountable the people responsible.

What steps can you take to include pets in your estate plan?

In Washington state, state residents can establish a pet trust to provide for the ongoing care of their pet should they become incapacitated or pass away. Given that the terms included in a pet trust are legally binding and enforceable, a pet trust can provide a measure of stability and predictability for the pet and peace of mind for the pet owner.

Pet owners benefit from setting up a pet trust versus providing a lump sum of cash for the pet in their will because the terms of a trust are more easily enforced. Furthermore, allocating assets for a pet via a will can take time; a pet may not receive the care they need until the estate is probated. On the other hand, a pet trust can become effective immediately.

If you are considering creating a pet trust, your Washington state estate planning lawyer will likely expect you to provide them with some specific information surrounding your pets and their care. Don’t worry if you are currently undecided about some of your choices; an estate planning lawyer experienced in creating pet trusts in Washington state can guide you through the process. Here is what your estate planning lawyer will want you to do.

1. Identify the pet(s) you want to include in your pet trust.

Pet trusts are best suited for animals that tend to live long lives, such as turtles or parrots, and animals that suffer from pre-existing conditions and require long-term veterinary care. People also create pet trusts for dogs and cats. 

Be sure to identify clearly the pet(s) you want to include in your estate plan. Include the names of your pet(s), their breed, and any distinguishing features they may possess. Including photographs can be helpful for identification and to avoid confusion.

2. Appoint a trustee.

When you create a pet trust, you must name someone to serve as a trustee. The trustee can be either an individual or a financial institution, depending on your preferences and the complexity of your estate. If you choose an individual to be the trustee of your pet trust, it is important first to ask them if they are willing and able to take on the responsibility.

The trustee will manage the trust’s assets, usually cash. The trustee will distribute money over a predetermined period, such as weekly or monthly, or disburse money to the pet’s caregiver if the pet requires emergency veterinary care, for example. 

3. Designate a caregiver.

Additionally, the trust should identify a caregiver to assume the day-to-day responsibilities of caring for the pet and describe the standard of care the caregiver must meet when caring for the pet. The trustee, in turn, will be responsible for supervising the caregiver to ensure they use the money for its intended use.

When choosing someone to care for your pets, pick someone you trust. Again, be sure to consult them first to ensure they are up for the job. 

4. Provide detailed instructions

The trust should clearly describe how you would like the funds to be used; for example, the instructions should specify the type of care you want for your pets. This can include the pet’s living arrangements, dietary preferences, and any details pertaining to their medical needs. This information should be provided in your estate plan or in a document your designated caregiver can easily access.

5. Inform relevant parties.

Communicate your wishes to the appointed caregiver, trustee, and any other relevant parties involved in your estate plan. Everyone involved must know that you have assigned them these roles. 

Furthermore, so they can be prepared for their roles and responsibilities, you should consider providing all relevant parties with copies of important documents, such as caregiver instructions, that you would want someone to have on hand should they need to call on them. 

6. Expect to review and update your estate plan regularly.

It is important to review and update your estate plan periodically. Every three to five years is generally a good rule of thumb, but it should be even sooner if there are any changes in the needs and circumstances of your pet, including a new medical condition, or if there are any changes to the needs of the designated caregiver. The death of a pet or the adoption of a new pet is also cause for a review of your existing estate plan.

Find a Washington state estate planning lawyer to include your pet in your estate plan.

With a pet in your life, taking steps to protect their health and well-being should you be unable to do so due to death or incapacity is wise. Though the process can sound confusing, a skilled Washington estate planning attorney who is well-versed in including pets in estate plans can help identify your and your pets’ needs and create the specific documents to protect them now and for years to come. Call our Seattle office today to get started. 

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