"What happens to dog when owner dies?" being thought about while on a run with man's best friend.

What happens to my pet after my death?

When it comes to estate planning, we know there are a lot of things to consider, but there’s no need to risk letting your furry companion ending up in the hands of someone who can’t care for them well—or worse, in an anonymous shelter.

So let's talk about what happens to a dog or cat when the owner dies. According to the ASPCA, there are already about 6.5 million pets sent to shelters annually in the US. If you aren’t diligent about how you would like your pet taken care of when you are gone, it could be treated like any other “unwanted” property.

The good news is that it’s easy to make sure that your pet is well-cared for after you die.  


Are pets considered assets?

Regardless of how much we love our pets and treat them as family, in the eyes of the court they are property. This means that, unless you include a clause for your pet in your will, there is no legal requirement for your heirs to take care of the pet.

The pet will either be included as a part of the “estate,” and legal ownership will be transferred to the beneficiary, or it will be sent to a shelter. Sadly, what happens to your dog when you the owner dies is it may be destined for a shelter.


Pet estate planning

The good news is this can be easily avoided. You may be wondering if you can put a pet clause in your will, and the answer is yes. This does not mean that you can leave money to your pet, however! (Believe it or not, people try to do this.)

What you can do is leave your pet, along with some money, to a trusted caretaker through either informal means or a will.

The only thing that you want to bear in mind as you leave a beneficiary extra money is that they are not obligated to actually spend that money on the pet. So make sure that you clarify your plan with at least one trusted caretaker, and discuss your wishes with them ahead of time to ensure that they can, in fact, take on the job.

The only way to ensure to leave funds for a pet after your death is to create a trust (the legal document that has instructions on how to manage funds and for whom) where a pet clause instructs the trustee (person in charge of trust) to care for and spend money for your pet.


How are pets treated in probate?

All property that does not automatically transfer ownership to another after the death of the owner must go through probate.  

Pets essentially fall under the category of “personal” belongings of an individual. If formal probate proceedings occur, all of the personal assets are required to be accounted for and would be distributed according to the will, if there is one. If there is no will, the formal proceedings follow intestate inheritance law.

Probate is typically needed only when a court order is required to change the official title (ownership).

See: What assets go through probate?


How can I trust my pets will be cared for when I die?

If you don’t make specific arrangements ahead of time, your dog, cat or pet may go to a shelter after your death or may be sent to a beneficiary as a part of your estate. There is a chance that the person who ends up with the pet is not the best caretaker, or may even give it away to a shelter on account of personal reasons if they aren’t prepared to take on the responsibility of a pet.

Careful consideration should be in place regarding the care of your pets as the traditional heirs (such as spouses and children) may not always be the best suited to care for your pet.

This is why we highly recommend that you specify the pet’s “guardian” (next owner) in your will so as to ensure proper care of your pet. Additionally, if you have the means, consider a financial bequest to the pet or guardian to alleviate any expenses in the transition.


Do you have questions about probate?

Probate isn’t something that most people are even aware of, let alone knowledgeable. If you have questions about the process, we’re here to help. Contact us today for more information or visit our resource center for further reading.