10 minute read

Pet Guardianship - What It Is and Why You Need It

Not sure who will care for your pet after your passing? We break down everything there is to know about pet guardianship and your estate plan.

Patrick Hicks

Patrick Hicks, @PatrickHicks

Head of Legal, Trust & Will

Most every pet owner will tell you that they consider their pet to be a member of their family, so shouldn’t those beloved furry friends be part of your Estate Planning conversation? We think yes.  

While the legalities of pet guardianship are often debated, there are several options that can be put in place to help ease the pain that comes when a loved one passes, specifically, if that person is a pet parent.  

We don’t want you to have the added stress of figuring out arrangements for you or your loved one’s animals in the event of a death on top of dealing with other existing funeral service preparations. So we’re answering these common questions regarding pet guardianship:

What Happens to Your Pet After You Die? 

There are various circumstances that will affect your pet after your passing. Most importantly, did you create a direct plan in advance specifically regarding your pet’s well being? 

While most assume they will outlive their pet — as animal life spans are usually shorter than human ones — there are unexpected situations that can prevent this desired outcome. This leads to wondering: “can I address my pet in my will?” “do pets have legal rights?” and “are there multiple options available to choose from?” The short answers: “yes”, “some”, and “yes”, all of which we’ll address in further detail below. 

Another commonly asked question that arises is “Can I request that my pet be euthanized after my death?” This question, while somewhat morose and extreme, does necessitate an answer for those who fear that it would be impossible to find a replacement caregiver to meet their standards. In most cases, however, the legal system will rule such a request invalid even if the pet owner establishes it in his or her will. If there is a more humane alternative — which tends to be true if the pet is young and healthy — the court will prioritize that course of action.  Only in the infrequent instances where a pet’s condition is poor (for example, if the animal is of older age and in need of extreme medical care) will the resolution to euthanize be considered. 

An additional important point to discuss in terms of planning for your pet after your passing is looking at how pets are classified in the eyes of the law. Continue reading to learn what it means to be a pet owner versus a guardian and why pet guardianship is the best option for animal lovers.  

Pet Guardianship vs Pet Ownership 

If you’ve ever wondered “What is the difference between a pet guardian and owner?” you’re not alone. This is a widely discussed topic among pet lovers, animal rights activists and public policy-makers alike; and the logistics can be confusing. So let’s start by simply breaking down the words “ownership” and “guardianship”.

The term ownership refers to the possession of property; primarily, inanimate or material goods. Guardianship is defined as “the position of protecting or defending something” or, more applicable to this conversation, “the position of being legally responsible for the care of someone who is unable to manage their own affairs.”

Under current law, guardianship is reserved for people and ownership is reserved for animals. This means that your pet would be categorized the same as your car or TV in the event you pass away unexpectedly or without a plan in place.  

While people across the country are protesting to change the current policy — and there are varying ordinances from city to city regarding pet rights — Federal Law continues to make no distinction between pets and property. This poses the controversial question: do our pets deserve the same freedoms as children?  The answer to that will likely be argued for years to come. Fortunately for animal enthusiasts, there are several options to ensure that those furry loved ones are well taken care of long after the passing of their owners. 

Pet Guardian Rights: What Are My Options? 

The following are several paths you can take to guarantee your pet’s comfort and happiness:

  • Will, Living Trust, or Power of Attorney: One of the simplest ways to ensure the long-term well being of your pet is to include them in your Will or Trust. Appoint a reliable caregiver (typically a friend or family member) and leave them a sum of money dedicated to caring for your pet — although leaving them money is not required. Note that your chosen caregiver will not technically have a legal obligation to care for your furry friend, even if it is explicitly stated in your will.  However, electing a trustworthy individual and giving them advanced notice should be enough to secure your pet’s safety and happiness.

    Electing a Power of Attorney is another viable option when it comes to caring for your pet after your passing. Opting for a Power of Attorney means you are authorizing another person to handle all of your affairs, including making arrangements for your pet,  in the event you become incapacitated. 

  • Pet Trust: Creating a pet trust is another great Estate Planning tool and similar to including your pet in your will or living trust. The biggest difference, however, is that whomever you choose to act as your pet’s guardian will have a legal obligation to follow through with the agreement. Pet trusts work like this: you appoint a trustee, create a written document of instructions on how exactly to care for your pet, and leave the trustee however much money you believe it will cost to support your pet for the remainder of its life.

    There is one legal caveat to keep in mind if you decide to utilize a pet trust: in the event you leave your trustee more money than necessary to care for your pet, the trustee has the option to give the remaining funds to alternate beneficiaries listed in your will. 

  • Charitable Organization: In the event you’re unable to find a suitable person to care for your pet after your death or incapacitation, a charitable organization may be able to provide you some comfort. Several programs — like or to name a few — were created to help find appropriate homes for pets whose owners passed away without defining specific arrangements in their wills.  

Have additional questions or need help deciding what’s best for the future of you or your loved one’s cherished pet? We’re here to help define your legacy. 

We understand that sometimes “planning for the future” is a task that can wind up on the “I’ll-just-do-that-later list”. But it’s important  to take active precautions in your Estate Planning to protect your pet’s future against any possible emergency that could put it’s safety and wellbeing in jeopardy.   


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