Pet Trust

Your pet is an important member of your family. But in the eyes of the law, pets are personal property, much like your car. That’s why you can’t leave money to your pet. You can mention your pet in your will, but there's no guarantee your wishes will be followed. If want to ensure your companion is cared for after you’re gone, a pet trust could be just the solution.

A pet trust is a legally enforceable arrangement providing for the care and maintenance of one or more companion animals. When deciding if a pet trust is right for your family, consider the following information.

Benefits of a Pet Trust

It’s a common misbelief that providing for your pets in a will is enough to guarantee their continued care. Remember, wills are for distributing property. Once that task is done, there's generally no ongoing supervision. So if you make provisions for a beloved dog in your will, the person receiving your companion is under no obligation to keep or care for your dog. But with a pet trust, the trustee has a legal duty to carry out your instructions.

There are many factors to consider when deciding if a pet trust is the right option for you including:

  • A properly formed pet trust can better withstand legal challenges from family members who are unhappy with your decisions.
  • Your pet’s care instructions can be very specific, including details such as the type of cat food that will be purchased, or the how many times a day your dog needs to be walked.
  • A pet trust is effective immediately upon your death. A will can take weeks or even months to execute.
  • You can require periodic inspections of your pet to ensure the caregiver is doing his or her job.
  • A pet trust can apply if you become incapacitated. For example, if you are moved to a nursing home or other long-term care facility, you and your pet can move together.
  • You can control the timing of payments made on your pet’s behalf. Promise made by friends and family often fail. It may not be wise to give your pet’s guardian all the money upfront. If the guardian has a change of life issue, your pet may face an uncertain future.

How a Pet Trust Works

A pet trust has many of the same features of other estate planning trusts. There is a grantor who creates the trust, and a trustee who holds the trust assets “in trust” for the benefit of the grantor’s pets. The terms of the trust can be as detailed as you wish, specifying preferences such as food or frequency of trips to the groomer.

Typically, payments to a designated caregiver will be made on a regular basis. The trust can continue for the life of the pet, although some states place a 21-year cap on the trust’s duration.

Depending on the laws of your state, the trust can continue for the life of your pet. Be aware that a few states terminate pet trusts after 21 years. This is an important consideration for long-living pets such as parrots.

You will need to have the following information before you draft your pet trust:

1. Select a Trustee

Generally, a trustee can be any adult of sound mind, or an organization or institution such as a law office. Check with your state’s laws to determine specific requirements. Before you select your trustee, make sure to review the requirements of the job and understand what the cost, if any. It is a good idea to select an alternate trustee, even if your first trustee is an organization.

2. Select a Caregiver

Decide if your pets should go to one person or distributed to different people or organizations. Select at least two caregivers in case their circumstances change during your pet’s life. Discuss the terms of the trust with potential trustees before they agree to the position. Keep in touch with them over the years to remind them of their duties.

3. Properly Identify Pet Beneficiaries

Your pets can be identified by photos, licenses or microchips or by “class”. For example, “the pet(s) owned by you at the time of death/incapacitation.”

4. Care Instructions

Include detailed information about your pet’s standard of care including frequency of vet and grooming visits, food preferences, sleeping arrangements, and exercise. Require inspections of the pet by the trustee. Determine what would trigger the pet being removed from the caregiver and identify the alternate caregiver.

5. Determine Financial Need

In addition to the cost of care for your pet(s), you’ll need to cover the cost of administering the trust. Determine how the funds will be distributed to the caregiver.

6. End of Pet Life Instructions

Consider when to terminate your pet’s medical care when faced with a terminal illness. The decision to terminate can be a joint decision shared by the vet, the trustee and the caregiver. Remember to state how your companion will be handled upon passing.

7. Remainder Beneficiary

Select a remainder beneficiary in case there is money remaining in the trust after your pet dies. The beneficiary can be a person or an organization.

Receive a Free Initial Evaluation: See if a Pet Trust is Right for You

Trusts are complex legal documents that require a solid understanding of local laws. An improperly formed trust may have no legal effect, leaving your pet to be distributed as property under your will. When you want to provide for a beloved pet after you die, you want to know your trust will withstand legal challenge. Receive a free initial review from an experienced trust attorney in your community and know that your companions are properly protected.

Next Steps

Contact a qualified estate planning attorney to help you ensure that your loved ones are cared for and your wishes are honored.

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