Estate planning for your furry loved one

If your pet became an orphan, who would be the caregiver? 

Article published: October 16, 2023

In this article:

  • Consider appointing a guardian for your pet
  • There are pet nursing homes that are also options
  • A pet trust could be a vehicle to provide for your pet when you pass

The notorious real estate magnate, Leona Helmsley, may have been known for her greed, but many may not know that she left her beloved Maltese dog, Trouble, $12 million in a trust when she died. That’s a surprising sum to leave to a pet, but what shouldn’t be surprising is that she included her pet in her estate plan.

Those of us with animal companions know of their unconditional love – giving us comfort in good times and bad, without expectation for much in return. But if you were to pass before they do, what would happen to them?

Just like you would need to set up a guardianship for your child in an estate plan, you may want to consider doing the same for your pet.

- Erin Smith, Director, Estate Planning


“If you don’t provide for your pet in a will or a trust, your pet could be at risk of being surrendered if there isn’t some type of financial guardianship,” Smith added.

Estate planning for your pet becomes even more important when you consider that your little furry friend has barely any legal standing beyond being considered property, not to mention his or her limited communication ability.


Suffice it to say, a pet trust does not require the $12 million that Helmsley bequeathed (for the record, the sum was reduced by a judge to $2 million, and there was money left over after Trouble passed that was given to charities). Average estimates left in a pet trust vary, but it could start at $15,000 or even less based on the pet’s age and life expectancy. An animal’s longevity can vary – sometimes wildly.

The average lifespan of a dog is 10 to 13 years while a cat’s is 12 to 18 years. However, some animals have lifespans that can require multigenerational estate planning, such as different types of parrots that live up to 70 years or pet tortoises that live 80 to 150 years.


Regardless of the kind of pet you have, estate planning for them has become common enough for most states to have statutes that enable the creation of separate pet trusts.

A pet trust can be created within a last will and testament, living trust or as a separate trust agreement, and the trustee will administer the funds for the benefit of the pet, and the document can outline how to distribute any remaining funds when the pet passes.

But, before your pet passes, will the guardian you pick for him or her provide the love for your pet that you would have? You want to make sure the guardian fulfills several requirements, including:

  • Does the person truly want to be a pet guardian?
  • Do they have a loving and trusting relationship with the pet?
  • Will the guardian be able to give your pet the care that is needed given the guardian’s other responsibilities and dependents?
  • Does anyone in the guardian’s household have pet allergies?
  • If the guardian has kids, do they get along with the pet?
  • If the guardian has other pets, does your pet get along with them?

There are pet nursing homes

An alternative to finding a guardian is a pet nursing home. Yes, they exist. One of the most well-known is the Texas A&M Stevenson Companion Animal Life-Care Center, which provides both emotional and medical care for all types of animals when their owners no longer can. There are also homes that mainly cater to senior and special-needs dogs and cats, such as House with a Heart Senior Pet Sanctuary in Maryland.



“We all love our pets, so regardless of what the plan looks like, you will feel better about having some sort of estate plan for them,” says Smith. Remember that all estate planning should be considered in the context of all your finances, so consider working with an estate planning attorney along with a financial planner to discuss how to incorporate your pet into your will or trust in the context of your overall financial plan.

The information regarding estate planning should not be construed as tax or legal advice and is for general informational purposes only.


Neither Edelman Financial Engines nor its affiliates offer tax or legal advice. Interested parties are strongly encouraged to seek advice from your qualified tax and/or legal professionals to help determine the best options for your particular circumstances.

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