If you’re an animal lover and have a pet of your own, you likely consider your pet to be a member of the family. And since your furry friends can provide protection, emotional support, and unconditional love, such consideration is often well deserved.
In stark contrast, the law considers your pet nothing more than personal property. That means that without plans in place, your pet will be treated just like your couch or vacuum in the event of your death or incapacity.
For example, if you die without including any provisions for your pet’s care in your estate plan and none of your family or friends volunteer to take your pet in, your faithful companion will likely end up in an animal shelter.
While you can leave money for the care or your pet in a will, there will be no continuing oversight to ensure your pet (and the money you leave for its care) will be cared for as you wish. Indeed, the person named as pet guardian in your will could drop the animal off at the shelter and use the money to buy a new TV—and face no penalties for doing so.
What’s more, a will is required to go through a court process known as probate, which can last for years and leave your pet in limbo during that entire time. And a will only goes into effect upon your death, so if you’re incapacitated by accident or illness, it will be useless for protecting your pet.
Given these limitations, the best way to ensure your animal companions are properly taken care of in the event of your death or incapacity is to create a pet trust.
Pet trusts go into effect immediately and allow you to lay out detailed, legally binding rules for how the funds in the trust can be used. Pet trusts can cover multiple pets, work in cases of incapacity as well as death, and they remain in effect until the last surviving animal dies.
Here are a few of the most important things to consider when setting up a pet trust:
Caregivers: The most important decision when creating a pet trust is naming the caretaker. The caretaker will have custody of your pet and is responsible for your pet’s daily care for the remainder of your pet’s life. As with naming a guardian for your children, make certain you choose someone you know will watch over and love your pet just as you would.
Consider the caretaker’s physical ability—naming someone elderly to raise your Great Dane puppy might be asking too much. Also make certain your pet fits in with the caretaker’s family members and other pets. In case your first-choice for caretaker is unable to take in your pet, name at least one or two alternates. If you don’t know any suitable caregivers, there are a variety of charitable groups that can provide for your pet if you’re no longer able to.
Trustees: Trustees are tasked with managing the trust’s funds and ensuring your wishes for the animal’s care are carried out in the manner the trust spells out. The caretaker and the trustee may be the same person or the roles can be divided between two different people.
Caretaking instructions: You may also want to include caretaking instructions such as your pet’s basic requirements: dietary needs, exercise regimen, medications, and veterinary care. Be sure you think about all of your pet’s future needs, including extra services like grooming, boarding, and walking.
Funding: When determining how much money to put aside for your pet’s care, you should carefully consider the pet’s age, health, and care needs. Remember, you’re covering the cost of caring for the animal for the rest of its life, and even basic expenses can add up over time.
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