Where There’s a Will, Create a Pet Trust

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Not that long ago, pets were considered mere possessions, legally and socially, no different than a couch or a car. Now, more than 75 percent of pet owners consider their animal companions full-fledged members of their families.

Approximately 80 million dogs and 95 million cats share their lives with people. But it wasn’t until 1990 that the law began to catch up with changing attitudes, allowing owners to provide for their pets in their wills. That year, the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws made a change that would first allow pet owners to legally provide for their fuzzy family members when they passed away.

The last state to make pet trusts a part of state law was Minnesota. Encouraged by Minnesota State Rep. Dennis Smith and his mixed-breed golden retriever Reagan, who appeared on the floor of the House to lobby for the change, the legislature unanimously passed a bill that was signed into law in May 2016. Today, all 50 states and the District of Columbia have some sort of provision.

For everyone who wants to provide for their pet, there are some basic rules to follow. These can differ slightly from state to state, so consider your options and then consult a pet-friendly lawyer who specializes in estate planning.

According to estate law, it is not enough to simply mention pets in a will. Wills can distribute property, but cannot guarantee that your wishes will be fulfilled. To truly protect your pet, you need to create a trust, providing specifically for the care of a pet when you pass away. A trust is a separate legal entity holding property or assets for the benefit of beneficiaries, in this case, your companion animals. There are two types of trusts designed for pets.

A statutory pet trust is a basic plan giving a trustee discretion in how the money can be spent, ideally, in the best interest of the pet. In some states, all that might be needed is a statement such as “I leave $5,000 in a trust to care for my cat, Molly, and my dog, Marvin.”

With the second kind of trust, a traditional pet trust, a pet owner names a trustee, who can invest and distribute the trust money, and a pet guardian, who has agreed to care for the animal. The trustee and the guardian may be the same person, but since the trustee checks on your pet to see that your wishes are being carried out, having two people offers some checks and balances.

The guardian is obliged to follow specific directions, using money set aside in the will. Pet owners also need to specify what needs to be done if for some reason the caretaker can no longer take care of the pet.

Instructions left in traditional trusts can be quite detailed. Singer Dusty Springfield required that her cat, Nicholas, would be fed imported baby food and that the nightgown she wore would be used to line the cat’s bed. If you want to assure that your dog will get weekly trips to the farmers’ market and sleep in an orthopedic bed or that your cat gets a sardine snack every evening, you can say so.

To protect a pet if an owner becomes disabled requires an inter vivos, or living trust, which could stay in effect even after death. These can even be written to ensure you and pet can stay together, even in a nursing home, if you can find one that allows them.

Make sure that the person you choose as your pet’s caretaker understands and is willing to undertake what is a huge responsibility. Name people who can take over if your first choice is unable to fulfill their obligation. Find someone whom you know will love your animal as much as you do.

When deciding how much money you will need to leave, consider how many more years your pet could be expected to live and how much it could conceivably cost to cover all expenses during its lifetime. Consider food and treats, boarding, day care, vet bills and other expenses. You want your pet to live the kind of life he had with you.

Finally, provisions need to be made about where any remaining money should go once the pet passes away. Lawyers recommend that the caregivers do not receive this money because, in some cases, they may be tempted to skimp on care. Nevertheless, you can state that some of the trust money would be set aside to compensate the caregiver while the animal is still alive.

If you pass away without leaving a legal stipulation, your beloved pet could end up abandoned and in a shelter, as do an estimated 500,000 animals each year. Plan ahead and you can assure that your best friend will continue to live a happy life, even if you might not be around to see it. ■

Sources: aarp.org, humanesociety.org, professorbeyer.com and interviews with Kathryn T. Raidt, Attorney at Law, and Barbara Gislason, Attorney at Law.