Pet Trusts - Planning for Your Pet Long Term

The limits of what we do for our pets know no bounds. We seek to please them almost as much as they seek to please us. But for all that we do, there is one area that most of us do not stop to consider. What happens to them if we’re not here to care for them or speak on their behalf? Many of us dismiss the thought as unpleasant. Many others choose to deny the possibility altogether. We think we’re young and healthy and have plenty of time to take care of these things later. Unfortunately, the truth is that none of us knows what will happen tomorrow and tragedy can strike unexpectedly. One way we can protect our pets in case of the face of the unexpected is by creating a pet trust.

A pet trust is a legally sanctioned arrangement that provides for the care and maintenance of one or more pets in the event of their owner’s disability or death. To be legally enforceable, these should be prepared by someone with a background in pet trust planning who is familiar with the laws of your state and is permitted by law to provide sanctioned trust forms.

Prior to 1990, courts refused to treat requests for the care of pets in estate documents as anything other than “honorary”. Basically, this meant that your wishes could be brushed aside if you did not have sympathetic judges, attorneys and/or family members. The Uniform Probate Code was revised to assist pet owners leave funds for the care of their pets after their own death.

Currently there are two types of trusts in existence: Testamentary and Inter Vivos. The difference is that a Testamentary Trust becomes enforceable upon the death of the owner and the Inter Vivos or Living Trust can be used in the event that the owner cannot take care of the animal. The fact that the inter vivos trust is immediate is a great benefit in itself. Some very important issues come into play such as the identity of the pet, the amount of funding for the trust and the length of the trust.

When establishing your trust, primary objectives include finding trustworthy participants and creating a system of checks and balances. Unfortunately, we do not always know people as well as we think. Money can have a strange and toxic effect on people, even the ones we genuinely believe are immune. You should appoint a trustee to administer the estate who will be responsible for performing periodic checks on the pets to ensure they are being cared for in accordance with the stipulations of the trust. Most estate planners encourage you to name at least one alternative caregiver in case your first choice is not willing or able to care for your pets. You will want to have serious discussions with those you choose and give them copies of the documents once they are completed. Review these plans regularly since people’s lives and situations are always subject to change.

Once you have chosen the people who will carry out your trust, establish a permanent method of identifying your pet(s). This may be through tattoos, DNA testing or other means. Be specific in requiring the trustee to conduct regular visits to the pet(s) in time periods stipulated by the trust. This helps to ensure the safety and welfare of the pet but also prevents pets being “impersonated” so that the trust funds continue after the death of your pet. To pet lovers, the very thought is revolting to the say the least. Unfortunately, there are numerous accounts of unscrupulous caretakers substituting one pet for another upon the actual pet’s death.

Next, determine the amount of money necessary to fund the trust annually. Click here to download our Expenditure Calculation worksheet for free A few items to consider are costs for: food, treats, toys, kennels and/or bedding, monthly preventatives such as heartworm and flea, other medications, annual vaccinations, sick care, grooming and boarding. There could be others depending on your situation. Also keep in mind that this may need to be multiplied if you have several pets in your household. You will also need to determine if you will be paying your trustee and caretaker for their services. The funds can come from a variety of sources. An estate planning professional can assist you with these decisions. The cost can seem daunting, but don’t let this deter you. Many people have simple agreements with friends and family which can work (but may not be enforceable in court). The worst thing to do for your pets is nothing.

After all of this has been established, settle on the duration of your trust. This is the other major reason that courts have not wanted to be involved with animal trusts. The “rule of perpetuity” makes a trust invalid unless it is for a specific term. The trust cannot be perpetual, or limitless, in length. Fortunately, most states now permit animal trusts to last the length of a pet’s lifetime, regardless of how long the pet might live; this is usually referred to as the Uniform Trust Act. If you have a long-lived pet and do not live in one of these states, contact an estate planning attorney to ensure they are properly cared for.

Several states have now enacted statutes that deal specifically with pet trusts (see http://estateplanningforpets.org/legal-statutes.htm for a complete list). If your state does not currently have provisions for your pet, you may still provide for them under Federal Law. There are several options, but doing nothing should not be one of them.

Trust documents can get complicated very quickly. While most wills are relatively short, it is not uncommon for a trust to be twenty to thirty pages long. Seek the advice of a knowledgeable attorney should you choose to go this route. Previously, there was little protection under the law for pets. Both case law and statutes consider pets property and in the past they were often dealt with in the same manner as a chest of drawers. It is vitally important that you contact an attorney who is familiar with estate planning for pets in your state. They should be able to advise you as to whether your state has enacted a specific trust for pets or if your trust will be overseen by federal law.

Many experts advise clients to prepare a trust instead of a will to provide for their pets. There are benefits and drawbacks for each of these. There is much information available through books, internet sites and experts. Be sure to learn just how including your pets in a trust will benefit you and them.

Disclaimer: I am not an attorney and am not offering legal advice either express or implied. The information contained herein is my own opinion based on years of research. While every effort is made to provide the best, most accurate and most current information, guarantees cannot be made. If you have questions and/or concerns, please seek the counsel of an attorney, financial planner or other estate planning professional.

 

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