What Is a Pet Trust?
Animal companions occupy a very special place in the lives of many pet owners, and the legal status of pets as mere property can prove unsettling. Simply put, the law views pets as personal property—just like a piece of jewelry or your car. That said, fear not. Despite this, there are ways of protecting your pet animals in the event of your death.
If you want to make sure your pet is well-cared for after you're gone, a pet trust may be the best solution. A pet trust is a legally enforceable arrangement providing for the care and maintenance of your companion animal. This article provides helpful information for you to consider as you decide whether a pet trust is right for you.
Benefits of Pet Trusts Over Wills
Because the law sees pets as personal property, wills are not the best way to make sure your pet is cared for once you die. Just as you cannot use a will to leave your jewelry to your car, you cannot leave other personal property (e.g., money) behind for your pet.
Also, though you can leave your pet to another person in your will, that person is not obligated to keep or care for them. This is because once property is distributed according to your will, there's generally no ongoing supervision. Just as a car inherited through a will can be sold, an inherited pet can also be passed on.
Unlike a will, a pet trust solves these problems by creating a legal duty to carry out specific instructions you leave behind for the care of your pet. The many benefits of a pet trust include the following:
- Family members unhappy with your estate planning decisions will have a harder time challenging a well-formed pet trust.
- Pet trusts allow you to leave very specific instructions on how to care for your pet, such as the type of food they should be fed or how many times a day they should be walked.
- Whereas wills can take months to administer, pet trusts are effective immediately upon your death.
- Whereas wills are only effective once you die, pet trusts can come into play when you become incapacitated.
- A pet trust can require periodic inspections to make sure the caregiver is doing their job.
- The money left behind in a pet trust can be dispersed in installments rather than in a lump sum, better ensuring the money is handled responsibly and lasts the duration of your pet's life.
How a Pet Trust Works
A pet trust shares the same basic features of other kinds of trusts. A “trust" is a property interest held by a trustee at the request of a grantor (known as trustor or settlor in some states) for the benefit of a beneficiary. In a pet trust, a pet owner (the grantor) leaves assets for a trustworthy third party (the trustee) to manage on behalf of the pet.
However, though the pet benefits from the trust, it is technically not like a human beneficiary because they lack legal standing—not to mention practical ability—to enforce the terms of the trust. Though solutions vary among states, this enforcement gap is often filled by designating an “enforcer" or “protector" responsible for ensuring your instructions are followed and that the funds you leave go toward their intended use. If you do not appoint this person yourself, they may be appointed by a court.
Special Limitations on Pet Trusts
Every state now has a pet trust statute describing formation requirements and limitations. In some states, the trust can continue for the life of your pet. However, some pet trust laws terminate trusts after they go on for 21 years. This detail should not cause a problem for most pets, though it can be very important for pets with longer life expectancies. For example, some horses live upward of 30 years and parrots can live for more than 70!
A trust document can be very detailed, specifying preferences such as what food a pet should be fed and how often they should visit the groomer. Typically, regular payments are made to a designated caregiver to fund the care.
However, outlandish instructions may come under fire, especially when the money put in the trust is wildly disproportionate to the pet's needs. The most representative case is that of Leona Helmsley, a billionaire who left $12 million for her Maltese (known as “Trouble") in a trust fund. A New York court later reduced the amount of money for the pet's care to $2 million, and the remainder was distributed among Helmsley's charity and her disinherited grandchildren.
How to Set Up a Pet Trust
Before setting up a pet trust, you will need to think carefully and make some important decisions. When you are ready, an estate planning attorney can help you draft the trust document according to the law in your state. Important considerations include the following:
1. Select a Trustee
The trustee will be responsible for making sure the trust property is well managed. As the name suggests, this person should be trustworthy! They should be responsible and have the skills to manage the property you leave in the trust.
Generally, a trustee can be any adult of sound mind. They can also be an organization specialized in trust management. In some cases, even a law office can serve as a trustee.
Check with your state's laws for specific requirements. Also, consider the long-term cost of the management service.
2. Select a Caregiver
The caregiver will be responsible for the daily care of your pet. This person should also be someone you trust to care for your pet as well as you would. Chances are they will be a loved one or a close friend, though they can also be an organization specialized in providing this service.
Select at least two caregivers in case the first one cannot perform their role. Bear in mind that money is probably a poor incentive for a good caregiver.
3. Select a Trust Enforcer
Your pet cannot sue on its own behalf when your trust instructions are not being followed, so many states have created a role for a trust “enforcer" or “protector." This person should also be someone you can count on to check on your pet periodically, ensure the trust terms are being carried out, and spring into action when they are not.
4. Identify the Beneficiary
Again, pets are not quite like human beneficiaries. In many states, governing pet trust statutes even say that the beneficiary of a pet trust is “indefinite" or “unascertainable." Despite this technicality, your pet will still be the one benefitting from the trust.
Therefore, they must be properly identified in the trust document. If you create a trust to care for more than one pet, each one should be clearly identified. Some combination of names, descriptions, photos, microchips, etc. could all get the job done.
5. Provide Care Instructions
You know your pet best. Your trust document should include detailed information about your pet's standard of care. Be sure to describe things like frequency of visits to the vet and groomers, food preferences, sleeping arrangements, exercise, etc. As best as possible, this document should plan for future developments as your pet ages.
6. Determine Financial Needs
Allocate appropriate funds for the care of your pet. If possible, plan generously. But remember that amounts hugely disproportionate to the pet's needs may be challenged in court.
You will also need to cover the cost of administering the trust and determine how funds will be distributed to the caregiver. Lump sums invite misuse. Therefore, consider monthly distributions.
7. End-of-Pet-Life Instructions
Provide instructions on the medical care your pet should receive if they contract a terminal illness or are critically injured. For example, you can provide broad instructions in the trust document and then give the veterinarian, trustee, caregiver, and enforcer joint power to make more specific decisions down the road. However you decide to address this, make sure you specify how you would like your pet to be handled when they die.
8. Select a Remainder Beneficiary
Finally, in case there may be money in the trust after your pet dies, you should name a beneficiary to receive any remaining funds. The beneficiary can be a person or an organization, such as a charity.
An Attorney Can Help You Decide If a Pet Trust is Right for You
Pet trusts can be an effective way of making sure your animal companion is well cared for if you die before them. They are also complex documents that require a solid understanding of the laws in your area. An improperly formed trust may have no legal effect, leaving your pet to be distributed as any other piece of property when you die.
A consultation with an estate planning attorney should give you some peace of mind that your pet trust is well-formed and enforceable.
Can I Solve This on My Own or Do I Need an Attorney?
- DIY is possible in some simple cases
- An attorney is on your side during complicated legal decisions
- Cases with trusts and beneficiaries are rarely cut and dry
- Get tailored advice and ask your legal questions
- Many attorneys offer free consultations