Include Your Pet in Estate Planning

What will happen to your pet if you die or become incapacitated? Do you have a designated caretaker and funds set aside for the long-term care of your pet? 

Thousands of pets end up in shelters each year because their owners, especially the elderly, become incapacitated. These pets are usually older animals and their chances of adoption are very slim. Yet there are ways to ensure that your pet is cared for regardless of what happens to you.

Estate Attorney Neeli Shah suggests that you don’t have to do anything elaborate, just do something legal and specific for the wellbeing of your fur babies. 

Each person’s situation is a little different. You may have a special needs pet, chickens or a horse, an exotic parrot, a show dog, or a simple, dearly loved family member. 

Start first by choosing a caretaker and at least one alternate, and ask them if they would welcome the responsibility. Second, if it is an unusual or dangerous breed, check for county or neighborhood restrictions. Third, you can protect your pet by making your choice of caretakers legal and binding.

Under Georgia law, pets are considered personal property. Many people simply expect that a family member will step in to take their pet, but you can legally specify a guardian for your pet in your will, and leave money for its care. The way things are worded, or the legal documents that are used, though, can substantially affect the way your pet may be managed.

Will: Include a provision in your will that states who your pet goes to, plus the articles needed for your pet’s care (carrier, bed, bowls, toys, etc.) that will go with your pet. You can also provide funds to the caretaker to use for the pet. Be aware that the will could go into probate for months. The caretaker can take the pet home immediately, but will have to wait until probate concludes to receive the funds. Also, a will only covers what happens when you die. Remember that, in a will, money given to the caretaker is a gift. The caretaker has no obligation to use it to take care of the pet. 

Bank Account: An alternative method to gifting is to leave your pet and pet care items to the caretaker in the will, but set up a bank account that is transferable to the caretaker upon your death, so they will have immediate funds for pet food and the vet. But, again, you are giving money directly to the person without constraints, and it can only go into effect upon death. 

A Revocable Living Trust:  A living trust can go into effect if you are incapacitated, without having to wait for you to die. You move assets into the trust, so they will be ready for the individual to take care of your pet. 

Formal Pet Trust: The beneficiary here is the pet itself, and a trustee is held accountable to manage the money in the trust. This gets a lot more specific. 

Financial POA: This is an even more immediate consideration for any time you become unable to manage your finances (such as a long hospitalization), and it can get even more specific. Include a paragraph specifically giving your designated caretaker financial power of attorney to take care of the needs of your pet, which would include the authority to approve medical procedures for your pet, as well as food and veterinary visits, in the event that you can’t be there.

Talk to your estate planner to see which provisions may be the best for you and your pet. Start young because you never know, and review your plans often as your situation changes.

Neeli Shah, JD, LLM, CEPA  specializes in estate planning and administration, in addition to business formation, income tax planning and charitable contributions in the state of Georgia. Her practice is in Buckhead. Call 404-988-4922 for a free consultation, or visit

Heron’s Crossing provides end-of-life care for pets in the Metro Atlanta area. In-home appointments with compassionate vets are available. If you’d prefer a home-like setting away from your home, our Decatur office is also available by appointment.