[Updated November 17, 2019]
I love when I hand someone a business card, and after scanning it briefly, she looks up with a puzzled look and asks, “Pet trusts? What’s a pet trust?”
Many people have never heard of a pet trust – or they may have only a vague recollection of NY hotel heiress, Leona Helmsley, leaving her dog, Trouble, millions of dollars. So today I’ll answer some of the questions I get about pet trusts.
What exactly is a pet trust? A pet trust is basically an agreement between the pet parent (grantor), a future pet parent (caretaker) , and a future money handler (trustee). The agreement specifies how and when the trustee will pay the caretaker for caring for the pet. To ensure there are no misunderstandings, this type of agreement is put in writing – generally as a standalone legal document, but sometimes it’s incorporated in a Will or a Revocable Living Trust.
Sounds complicated. Can’t I just leave some money and my pet to my son/mother/nephew/friend in my Will? Yes. Under the law, your beloved Harley is just property – like your xbox – and you can leave him to anyone you want. You can also leave your money to anyone you want.
Then why would I need a pet trust? You might not need a pet trust if all the stars are aligned just right. If your daughter loves Harley, is able to take him when you die, and has plenty of money, everything could end happily ever after. But, sadly, life rarely works that way.
What could go wrong? Lots.
- Legally, just because you left Harley and some money to your daughter, there’s nothing to stop her from taking the cash and dropping Harley off at a local shelter on her way to the bank. Even if you write something in your Will saying she only gets the money if she keeps Harley, there’s no one who can enforce that. Your Personal Representative (Executor) is responsible for distributing your stuff and once it’s distributed, his job is done.
- What if, when you die, your daughter is living in a condo that doesn’t allow dogs? Or doesn’t allow big dogs?
- What if she has a child that’s afraid of dogs?
- What if she has a new husband who hates dogs?
- What if Harley is showing the first signs of aging or cancer when you die and your daughter can’t afford special food and other treatments?
- What if your daughter won’t tolerate accidents on her spotless white carpets?
The list goes on.
Okay. I really love my pet, so maybe a pet trust is a good idea. Can I find one online? Probably. You can find almost anything online today. But using a form pet trust will provide very limited options and may not provide any more protection that leaving money and your pet to someone in your Will.
So, you’re saying I should have a lawyer create my pet trust? Yes. An estate planning attorney who has experience drafting all different types of pet trusts will be able to create the trust that’s just right for your particular situation.
Wait! You mean there are different kinds of pet trusts? Yes. Everyone’s situation is different, and I’ve never created two pets trusts that were exactly the same. These are not “find and replace” documents – each one has to be exquisitely tailored. One client may want to leave enough money so his trustee can buy a house for his six dogs and their caretaker. Another may leave her cats and all her assets to a no-kill rescue shelter that has a lifetime care program. Yet another may leave her horse to her child, but will have her trustee reimburse the child regularly for the horse’s expenses. Pet trusts are as unique as you are.
How much money should I leave for the care of my pet? That’s a difficult question to answer. You should leave enough money to pay for the ordinary and some of the extraordinary expenses your pet may incur over its lifetime. That answer can be wildly different depending on whether your pet is a dog or a horse or a parrot. Even different breeds can have different medical needs – German Shepherds may have hip problems, Maine Coons may be more prone to kidney disease, etc. Food costs for a St. Bernard or Great Dane are much greater than those of a Chihuahua. As a rule of thumb for a dog, plan on leaving at least $5,000- $10,000 per dog; somewhat less for cats or parrots, and much more for horses. A small life insurance policy naming your pet trust as the beneficiary may be an economical way to provide the funds for your pet’s care.
What if I don’t know anyone who will take my pet when I die? That’s a fairly common scenario today, but you do have options. We’re blessed to have so many wonderful rescues and shelters in Southwest Florida. Some rescues will keep your pet forever, while others will actively search for a new forever home for your pet. Several local organizations have programs you can enroll your pet in while you’re alive, and thus you can be assured that Harley and Fluffy will be cared for the way you wish. I also work with a non-profit organization, Animal Care Trust USA, which will act as trustee of your pet trust and, depending on your wishes and resources, place your pets in a forever home, a sanctuary (especially for senior pets, horses, etc.), or even find someone to care for your pets in your own home!
Pet trusts sound like a lot of work for the lawyer. Are they expensive? They can be, but most of the time they’re a very modest investment for loving pet parents who wants to make sure their pet is taken care of properly if they become disabled or die. As I mentioned earlier, while it’s best to create a standalone pet trust, some people choose to incorporate pet trusts into their estate planning documents – which is usually more cost effective. Once I understand what is needed, I quote a price for the entire package – which would include the pet trust.
If you plan ahead, you can have some control over what happens to your fur baby in the future. If you just hope for the best, Harley may end up with other abandoned pets. If you love your pet, at least talk with a pet trust lawyer to see if adding a pet trust to your estate plan would be right for you.