Beyond The Will, Client Compass

Estate Planning for Your Furry Friends – Pet Trusts Explained

November 8, 2023


For many pet owners, their furry friends are not just their most valued possessions – they are family members. Pet owners want to do everything they can to care for their pets, but what happens if they outlive you? It can be difficult to consider, but it is important to have a plan in place for your pet in the event that you should pass away. This article will discuss the different options you can incorporate into your estate plan to protect your furry friend.

Animals in the Eyes of Law

Under the law, animals are considered personal property, like a car, jewelry, clothing, etc. If a pet owner passes away without an estate plan, the pet will be distributed to their “heirs-at-law” or their closest living relatives as determined by a genealogical chart. Even with an estate plan in place, unless there is a specific provision in an estate plan regarding a pet, the pet will be distributed to the person inheriting the decedent’s personal property. If the beneficiaries of the pet owner’s estate plan or heirs of their estate do not want to assume responsibility and care for the pet, it can often end up in the pet being surrendered to a shelter.

Options for Your Estate Plan

One option for your estate plan is to make a specific bequest for your pet to an individual you choose to care for them. This can be done in a Will or a Trust and will ensure that the pet is cared for once you are gone. Some pet owners choose to leave a small sum to the person who will care for their pet to help with the cost for the care of their pet.

Another option is to establish a pet trust. A pet trust is a trust established for the care of an animal (or animals) that outlive their owners. All fifty states recognize pet trusts which are fairly common – especially for animals with longer life expectancies, like turtles or birds, or animals that are expensive to care for, such as horses.

Pet trusts will remain in effect for the life of the pet (or until the death of the last surviving pet if there are multiple). The trust is fully customizable, and the pet owner has many important decisions to make when establishing the trust.

First, the pet owner must choose a Trustee of the trust. The Trustee will be responsible for overseeing the care of the animals and paying for expenses – including food, grooming, veterinary visits, etc. The Trustee can be the person physically caring for the pet, or the pet owners can designate a different caregiver for the pet. In that case, the Trustee would be responsible for managing the finances for the pet and paying the caregiver accordingly. The Trustee is entitled to compensation for managing the trust, and the pet owner may authorize payments to the caregiver for their time spent caring for the pet. It is often recommended to name successor Trustees and caregivers if the person the pet owner names cannot serve in either role.

Second, the pet owner must decide how they want to fund the trust. Any sum of money may be left to the trust. Some pet owners leave all of their estate in trust for the benefit of their pets. In those cases, they often name their family members or a charity as the contingent beneficiaries to take the remaining funds of the trust, if any, after the animal passes away.

If you are worried about who will care for your pet after you pass away, you should discuss these concerns with your estate planning attorney. As discussed above, there are many options to ensure that your furry friend is well taken care of.

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