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Don’t Forget Fluffy and Fido When Creating Your Estate Plan!

The majority of households in the United States have a dog, cat, bird, or other furry, feathered or scaled animal companion. Of those households, many consider their pets to be family members. Because most pets have shorter life spans than their human family members, most people have probably planned for the passing of a beloved companion. But what if you are the one who becomes ill or incapacitated, or who dies first? Who would ensure that they continue to get the care that you once provided? To ensure that your beloved pet will continue to receive the same level of care in the event that something unexpected happens to you, it’s vital to have a formal plan in place.

Because pets need care daily and will need immediate attention should you die or become incapacitated, the importance of making arrangements for temporary or permanent caregiving cannot be overstated. Still many people forget or don’t realize that they should have formal arrangements in place. Perhaps part of the problem is not understanding what including your pet in your will or creating a pet trust would look like, or that it’s even an option. So what can pet parents do to ensure that their furry friends are taken care of even when they are no longer there?

Include Your Pet in Your Will

While many of us consider our pets to be family, under the law they are still viewed as property. As such you can leave your pet to a specific individual in your Will. While this is done frequently and successfully, there are potential drawbacks. For example, a will takes effect only upon your death, and it will not be probated and formally recognized by a court for several days or even weeks. In other words, it may take a long time before your instructions regarding your pets’ long-term care can be carried out and enforced by a court. This doesn’t mean that you should not include a provision in your will that provides for your pet. It just means that you should explore creating additional documents that compensate for the will’s limitations.

Create a Pet Trust

Another option is to create a trust specifically for the care of your beloved pet. Unlike a will, a trust can provide for your pet immediately and can apply not only if you die, but also if you become ill or incapacitated. That’s because you determine when your trust becomes effective. When you create a trust for your pet, you set aside money to be used for his/her care and you specify a trustee to control the funds. A trust created separately from the will carries certain benefits: It can be written to exclude certain assets from the probate process, so that funds are more readily available to care for your pet. Additionally, it can be structured to provide for your pet even during a lengthy disability.

After you and your lawyer create a will, a trust, or both, be sure to leave copies with the person you’ve chosen to be executor of your estate as well as with the pet’s designated caregiver so that he or she can look after your pet immediately following your passing. And remember, it is becoming more and more common place for people to include their companion animals in their estate planning, so don’t be afraid to bring it up when first meeting with an attorney. The most important thing is that you choose a plan and implement it. An estate planning professional can help with hammering out the specific details. You’ll feel better knowing that your trusty companion will always be in good hands.

Ask Kit Kat: Honorary “Dog”torate

Hook Law Center: Kit Kat, what can you tell us about the dog at Virginia Tech who was awarded an honorary doctorate on May 15, 2020 from their College of Veterinary Medicine?

Kit Kat: Well, it is a fact that “Moose,” the therapy dog, is affiliated with the Cook Counseling Center at Virginia Tech. He is an 8-year old yellow Labrador retriever who is on a team of therapy animals. Moose is very busy. Since 2014 when he began his career at Virginia Teach, he has assisted at more than 7,500 counseling sessions. He works alongside a licensed counselor; usually, it is Trent Davis, his owner.

In this era of COVID-19, Moose has adapted to the times. He and his owner conduct appointments virtually. If it is an emergency, he will hold in-person sessions. Moose is the most popular of the 4 therapy dogs. In 2019, he won the Virginia Veterinary Medical Association’s Animal Hero Award. According to Davis, Moose’s primary contribution is helping to lessen the stigma sometimes associated with mental health counseling. He says, “Veterinarians are unfortunately a very challenged population. They have high rates of suicide, and this profession can be quite disturbing. He has really helped the students and staff at Virginia Tech and has gotten a lot of recognition for that.”

Moose has had his own struggles to meet. In February of this year (right after his birthday), Moose was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He has undergone radiation treatments, and treatment continues. Davis says Moose continues to be his friendly self. Moose’s secret lies in his ability to put people at ease. Once with him, they usually are relaxed enough to confide in the therapists who accompany him. He acts as an ice breaker. Troubles melt away when he is in the room. (Alaa Elassar, “Meet Dr. Moose: Virginia Tech awards one of its therapy dogs an honorary doctorate degree,” www.cnn.com, May 17, 2020)

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