Creating a Trust for your Pet
No doubt, your pet or pets are significant parts of your family. (Does it sometimes seem like your dog is the only one happy to see you come home after work?) Yet most people do not include them in their estate plans, either assuming that their pets will pass away long before they do or that family and friends will simply step in to take care of them. And this is usually the case.
But if you do not have family or friends who are likely to step in, would like to compensate whoever does step up to the plate, or have exotic pets that require special care, you might want to make provisions for them in your estate plan. We once had clients who owned rare parrots and made arrangements for them to go to a particular sanctuary if the parrots outlived them.
The first thing to know about planning for pets is that they are treated like property so that through your will you can give them to whoever you choose just like any other property. But first talk to the person or people to make sure that they are ready to take on this responsibility.
The second factor to consider is that you cannot leave money directly to a pet. So, if you want to compensate the person taking care of your pet or pets or provide a fund to pay for expenses, such as for veterinarians, dog walkers, or people to care for the pets when the primary caregiver is traveling or otherwise unavailable, this can be done in one of two ways, or both. You can simply leave money to the caregiver with the understanding, whether explicit in your will or trust or through conversations with the caregiver, as to why you are making the gift. Or you can create a trust for the benefit of your pet.
All states now permit pet trusts (with Minnesota being the last to pass a law authorizing them), which was not the case as recently as 15 years ago. There are several advantages to a pet trust. It makes certain sufficient money is available for whatever your pet’s needs may be in the future and is available in case circumstances change so that your designated caregiver can no longer take care of your pet. It also permits you to leave specific instructions, such as providing for a romp in the dog park every day or a visit to the veterinarian at least twice a year. The disadvantage is simply that a trust, as opposed to a less formal arrangement, creates another level of planning and administrative cost. However, those pet owners who do not have a natural care system in place – friends and family – generally find these costs to be more than justified by the reassurance that their pet will be cared for appropriately. A further advantage of a pet trust is that it can go into effect during your life in the event of incapacity; the protections it provides do not have to wait until you pass away. Of course, you still need to find the right people to take the pet and serve as trustee.
Some states also have statutory pet trusts, laws containing all of the trust provisions, which make these easier to set up and mean that the pet owner has fewer decisions to make about the trust terms. They can also use them if they like their provisions without hiring a lawyer to prepare the trust. Of course, for some people the cost of setting up a tailored trust is not an undue burden.
In probably the most famous pet trust case, hotel heiress Leona Helmsley, who died in 2007, left $12 million for the benefit of her white Maltese, Trouble, and nothing to two of her four grandchildren. The court later reduced this amount to $2 million, determining that the extra $10 million was unnecessary. According to an article in The New York Times when Trouble died in 2012, her annual expenses were about $190,000, the bulk of which — $100,000 — went for security costs. Her guardian, the general manager of the Helmsley Sandcastle Hotel in Sarasota, Florida, received $60,000, and the balance of the expenses went for grooming, food and veterinary costs.