Pet Trusts

Did you know that you can leave money to be used for the care of your dog, cat or other pet after you die?  Using your will, you can also put someone in charge of managing and spending the funds, following a written set of instructions that you provide.  Recently, Washington law changed to allow pet trusts, with Fido as the beneficiary, even if there is no human beneficiary.

Most trusts for pets are written so that they take effect when the owner dies. In the document that creates the trust, here are the important issues you want to address:

pet estate planning

Does your will or estate plan include care for your pet?

Which animals are included? In the state of Washington, you can create a trust to provide for the care of one or more pets that are alive during your lifetime. The trust ends when the last surviving animal dies. But you can’t set up a pet trust to continue indefinitely—for example, for offspring of your current pet or others that the caretaker might acquire.

Who will take care of the pet? Whether or not you use a trust, choosing a caretaker or guardian is the most important decision you will make. This is the person who will have custody of Fluffy and will responsible for her day-to-day care. Don’t assume the person you want to name is willing to take on this responsibility, even if it is your spouse or best friend.   Always ask ahead of time whether that person is willing and able to be responsible to love and care for your pet.  You will want to name an alternate caretaker, also, in case your first choice can’t take the pet when the time comes.

How much money is to be used for your pet’s care? Do the best you can to estimate how much the caretaker will need to take care of Fido. The appropriate amount varies widely depending on the pet’s age and condition.  You can make this estimate by adding up the approximate monthly cost of food, vet care, treats, dog walking or pet daycare, and other special needs your pet has, then multiply that by twelve to get the annual cost- be sure to add in some funds to this estimate to cover unexpected vet bills.  Then, multiply the annual cost by the number of years you expect your pet to live, based on today’s situation.  For example, if you have one dog who is five years old, figure out how many years his natural life is likely to be, then account for the annual cost times that number of years.  However, be aware that if you set aside an amount that is unreasonably high, your family members could challenge it in court, and a judge may decide to reduce the amount. For example, a Pennsylvania woman set up a trust that in 1974 made $40,000 to $50,000 a year available for the care of four horses and six dogs. The court ruled that as long as the animals were well taken care of, the trustee was free to give the surplus money to the alternate beneficiaries named in the will. (Lyon Estate, 67 Pa. D. & C.2d 474 (1974).) And we all heard about Leona Helmsley’s dog Trouble, who had a $12 million trust fund. In 2008, a judge reduced it to $2 million and ruled that the rest should go to Helmsley’s charitable foundation.

What are the caretaking instructions? Pet trusts should be quite detailed when it comes to instructions for the caregiver. This makes sense, given that animals can’t tell the caregiver what they need or like. Owners often specify everything from Fluffy’s favorite food and toys to sleeping arrangements.

Who can go to court and enforce the terms of the trust if necessary.  This should be someone, likely your chosen caretaker, who makes sure the trust money is being spent appropriately on the pet or pets, and not for any other reason.

What should be done with any money that’s left over when the pet dies? If you leave more money than is necessary, and your pet dies before it is all spent, where do you want the residuary to go? It could go to family, a friend or a charity; this is your choice.

What happens if you can’t take care of your pet before your death? One great feature of a pet trust is that the trust can take effect before your death, if you were to become incapacitated and unable to care for your fur babies. The caregiver you named could immediately take custody and control of your pets if necessary. The provisions in a will, by contrast, don’t have any legal effect until your death.  You might want to make a provision in your will for a testamentary pet trust, and create a separate “living” trust that details what happens should you become disabled, incapacitated or otherwise unable to take care of your pet.

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