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How can someone address companion animals in an estate plan?

On Behalf of | May 20, 2024 | Estate Planning

Estate planning is a personal process wherein people address their vulnerabilities and the needs of the people they love. An individual testator’s situation determines what documents they require and what kind of legacy they hope to leave when they die.

Providing for those who depend on an individual can be as important as designating certain people as beneficiaries for specific assets. Humans may not be the only dependents that a testator has to consider when establishing an estate plan. They could have companion animals ranging from a parrot that could live for decades to a puppy they recently adopted.

How can those who worry about the care of their pets address them in an estate plan?

Pets cannot inherit property

Technically, pets do not have property ownership rights because they are not people. Testators in Georgia who try to declare their pets as beneficiaries in a will run the risk of creating unenforceable documents or causing probate litigation because their beneficiaries question their decisions. While someone may want to leave assets for the care of a pet, leaving the pet assets directly is typically not a viable solution.

Pets shouldn’t receive the same treatment as property

The other simplistic approach to pets in an estate plan can be equally dangerous. Some people treat their pets as property, which is technically how the Georgia courts view those animals. A testator can name someone to inherit their pet. However, once that person assumes ownership of the pet, they have total control over what they do with that animal. People might euthanize a pet and then use the resources they inherited for its care for personal purposes instead. People may also resent the obligation to care for someone’s companion animal and may mistreat it.

A trust is the most effective solution

Georgia does allow people to create pet trusts as a way of providing for companion animals. The person caring for the pet can be different than the trustee, which provides a layer of supervision for the caregiver and therefore protection for the animal. A testator can provide clear instructions about the kind of care that the pet should receive and can even determine what should happen with any remaining assets after the pet’s eventual passing. Particularly in cases involving long-lived animals like tortoises, parrots or horses, providing instructions about meeting the long-term care needs of the animal and enough resources to cover board, food and veterinary care can help ensure a reasonable standard of living for the animal after the owner dies.

Understanding the limits of estate planning for pet owners in Georgia can help people create documents that actually achieve their goals. Pet owners may need to invest more time and effort into estate planning than those who only have human beneficiaries to consider.