The infamous Leona Helmsley was the subject of as many headlines after her death as when she was alive, mainly because she left millions in trust for her dog, “Trouble.” However, you don’t have to have millions to want to protect your faithful pet’s future in the event of your passing, according to a recent article, “Pet Trusts Are Worth the ‘Trouble’” from Wealth Management.
Pets are legally considered the personal property of their owner, in the same way, one owns a house or a car. If no planning has been done, your heirs can inherit the ownership of your pet. However, they won’t be required to care for your pet. Instead, they can take the pet to a local shelter or, as often happens, abandon it. However, there are steps you can take to protect your animal companion.
Ask two friends or relatives if they would be willing to serve as emergency and/or long-term caretakers. Provide them with contact information for your veterinarian, discuss your wishes about what should happen to your pet and make sure they have each other’s contact information. Have a frank discussion of how expenses will be covered and stay in touch with them. Circumstances can change over time; if they move, have a health issue, or can’t manage the care of your pet, you’ll want to know about it.
Planning for pets has both legal and financial considerations. A pet trust may be created as part of a living trust or as a stand-alone trust. The named trustee has access to funds, and the language of the trust includes directions as to how funds should be used for your pet and how to distribute any remaining funds upon the death of your pet. Pet trusts are now valid in all states.
Note that a verbal agreement to care for your pet may not be legally enforceable. Therefore, you may prefer to use a pet trust. While you can put a provision in your will for the care of your pet, unlike a trust arrangement, there is no continuing obligation for the executor under a will to ensure the pet's well-being once the estate administration is completed. Instead, you’ll have to count on the moral commitment of the caregiver to take care of your pet.
Planning for your protection shows why a pet trust is a good idea. For example, your Power of Attorney names an agent to act on your behalf in the event of your own physical or mental incapacity. It is possible to include specific funds in a Power of Attorney to maintain and support companion animals. However, this terminates on your death. A trust remains in effect for as long as the terms dictate, whether you are incapacitated or deceased.
Another option is to make arrangements with a humane society or animal rescue group to take possession and care of your pet. This may require making a specific donation to the group and having confidence that the organization will be operational as long as your pet lives.
Speak with your estate planning attorney about your state’s rules on pet trusts and plan for yourself and your beloved animal companion. You’ll then rest easy knowing you are both protected.
Reference: Wealth Management (April 14, 2023) “Pet Trusts Are Worth the ‘Trouble’”