Setting Up a Trust for Your Pet
A dear friend of mine just entered hospice care. After a courageous battle, she is finally surrendering to ovarian cancer. In a conversation shared yesterday, she told me that she wants her beloved horse Partner to go to one of our mutual friends along with her truck and trailer and money to take care of him for the rest of his life. When asked if all of this was in writing (my hope was that all of this was already recorded in a notarized legal document), she responded with, “No.”
So, while I’m now aware of my friend’s intentions for her horse, there’s no guarantee that her wishes will be carried out when all is said and done. She is concerned that her husband might not be happy with her plan (he doesn’t know about it yet, nor does she want him to). I’m in the process of contacting my friend’s attorney to see if he is available to talk with her and prepare an appropriate document. In all honesty, I’m afraid that we are running out of time. I’ve typed something up myself that my friend can sign today with hopes that this will suffice in terms of carrying out her wishes.
My friend’s situation is not unique. Who the heck knows if we will predecease our pets? Just as for our children, having certainty about how our animals will be cared for after we pass away not only protects them, but also has the potential to provide us with tremendous peace of mind. Setting up a legal trust is the best way to make all of this happen.
What is a pet trust?
A pet trust is a legal arrangement that provides for an animal’s care and maintenance in the event of the pet guardian’s disability or death. The “grantor” (called the “settlor” or “trustor” in some states) is the person who creates the trust. A “trustee” is designated and holds property such as cash “in trust” for the benefit of the pet. Payments to a designated caregiver(s) are made on a regular basis.
Rules and regulations
It’s now possible to make provisions for a pet through a trust in all 50 states. Minnesota was the last hold out and, earlier this year, became the final state to pass legislation approving pet trusts.
Rules pertaining to pet trusts vary from state to state. In most cases the trust terminates when the animal passes away or after 21 years, whichever occurs first. While this works well for most dogs and cats, it has the potential to be problematic for animals with longer life expectancies such as horses and parrots. Some states allow a pet trust to continue past the 21-year term if the animal remains alive. After the pet passes away, any remaining funds are typically distributed amongst heirs as directed by the terms of the trust.
When crafting a trust, think about who you might want to care for your pets if you are no longer able to, and then talk to that person(s). Better to check out the viability of your plan in advance than surprise your friend or relative with such news after you are gone. While not necessary for the intended caregiver to sign off on the legal document, it is certainly wise to know in advance that you have their buy in.
Instruction within the trust can be very specific, including as much detail about your pet’s care as you like. For example, you might specify preferred types of food, favorite toys, sleeping arrangements, exercise regimens, and the number of veterinary visits per year. Consider specifying how much veterinary intervention you would want should illness arise. Details about care of your pet’s remains following their death can be included.
Think about how much money would be needed to properly care for your pets and how the funds should be distributed to the caregiver(s). Remember to factor in funds for grooming, boarding, and veterinary costs.
Lastly, identify your pets within the trust with as much detail as possible. In addition to their names include details such as breed, size, identifying markings and microchip numbers. Consider including photographs.
Making a trust happen
If you don’t already have a trust prepared for your pets, I encourage you to make this a priority. Ideally, enlist the help of an attorney who specializes in estate planning. If this isn’t feasible, type up a document (as I am doing today for my friend) and sign and date it. It might be a good idea to also have the document signed by a witness or two. I suspect there are on line templates one can follow as well.
Performing such “grown up tasks” isn’t much fun, and it’s certainly no fun to think about someone else caring for your beloved animals someday. Nonetheless, I encourage you to get a trust prepared for your pets. Guaranteed, after doing so, you will feel some peace of mind having provided this true expression of love for your animals.
Do you have a trust in place for your pets? If not, will you consider making this happen?
Nancy Kay, DVM
Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
Author of Your Dog’s Best Health: A Dozen Reasonable Things to Expect From Your Vet
Recipient, Leo K. Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year Award
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Recipient, AKC Club Publication Excellence Award
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Please visit http://www.speakingforspot.com to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health. There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health are available at http://www.speakingforspot.com, Amazon.com, local bookstores, and your favorite online book seller.