What Happens to My Pets When I Die?

Although a reality in the popular Disney film the Aristocrats, where a wealthy woman leaves her entire estate to her cats, by law, pets can neither inherit nor own property. Legally speaking, pets in fact themselves are considered property, and just as you draft an estate plan to make sure your inanimate property is properly dealt with after your death, animals that can potentially outlive you should also be accounted and properly planned for.

Estate Planning for Pets

Write A Will

The simplest option is to meet with friends and family to see if anyone is willing and capable of caring for your pet after your death. Finding a trustworthy individual is key to ensure peace of mind that your pet is properly cared for. Once you’ve found a qualified candidate, you’ll need to indicate that they will be the new owner in your will. A simple statement like “I leave my pet (the type of animal) (name of animal), to (name of person)” will suffice.

There are disadvantages to this option, however. The designee may decide that they no longer want or are able to care for the animal. Since they are legally the pet’s new owner, they are entitled to act as they wish. If you leave money to cover the cost of care, you always run the risk of the new owner leaving the animal behind at a shelter and keeping the money, regardless of how trustworthy they may seem. It’s a good idea to name an alternate person in case the first choice doesn’t follow through. Moreover, it’s important to note that the will will not take effect until after probate. Consider making arrangements with family or friends so that your pet is under good and reliable care until their ownership is transferred.


This option is more often explored if you are about to undergo surgery or are going on vacation and would like to cover your bases in case the unthinkable happens. A letter/memorandum is separate from a will and is only valid in some states, so it’s best to reach out to an attorney to see if this is a valid option where you live.

Setting Up A Pet Trust

This option involves drafting a legal document that designates a caretaker for your pet, the amount of money to be used for the animal’s care, caretaking instructions as well as someone to go to court and enforce the terms of the trust, if necessary. Fortunately, unlike a will, a trust kicks into effect immediately after the grantor dies. The trust can also be as detailed as specifying the animal’s favorite toys to play with, preferred foods and even sleeping arrangements.

What If I Have No Plan?

In this case, whoever will get ownership of your pet will depend on whether or not you’ve made a verbal arrangement with a willing individual. If not, your pet will be distributed based on your state laws of intestate succession, which depending on the person can sadly turn out to be the worst-case scenario.

Avoiding this situation is possible only through proper planning. If you or a loved one are looking to make sure that your pet is in good hands after your death, contact a licensed estate attorney to set up a trust for your beloved pet.