By Melissa Gleick
People have interesting reactions when they hear about legal trusts for pets. They range from “a trust for a pet –you can’t be serious”, to “money should be left to family members not animals”, and finally to relief, especially from pet owners who have been worried about what would happen to their beloved pet if they were to predecease their pet.
If you caught “CBS News Sunday Morning” on April 10, 2011, you would have sensed the love that pet owners have for their animals. You also would have learned that, according to a Sunday Morning poll, 89% of people consider their pets part of their family. Additionally, 62% of U.S. households are home to at least one pet; that translates to 73 million homes.
Candidly, having the option to create a trust for a pet leads to peace-of-mind for pet owners. Other benefits include keeping animals out of overburdened shelters, being abandoned or even euthanized. The passage of the Massachusetts law authorizing the creation of trusts for pets has generated many questions about pet trusts from animal lovers across the state. Some of the following questions reflect the love and concern that pet owners have regarding their pets and how estate planning can help.
I don’t understand why is this law needed, I’ve made arrangements, that I believe are legal, to have my dog cared for if I pass before him. What’s different with the new law?
You have most likely named someone to care for your dog and left money to that person to use for your dog’s care. Prior to the enactment of the new law, the only solution pet owners had was to take the steps that you have in place. However, using your scenario as an example, there is no legal obligation for the caretaker to spend the money you left to care for your dog or, for that matter, to even keep your dog. The new law creates a legally enforceable obligation on your caretaker. Under the new law:
- Pet owners may establish a legally enforceable trust for the care of pets following the owner’s death. The trust would remain in effect until a date specified by the owner or until the pet dies. Those entrusted with the care of a pet would be precluded from using the funds for any other purpose.
- If a person or organization believes that the money set aside in the trust for the pet’s care is being misused, there are legal remedies to enforce the deceased owner’s wishes.
I own several cats and naturally assumed that one of my children would care for them if I die first, am I being reasonable?
Quite possibly yes. However, have you actually spoken to your family about your wish to have one of them care for your cats? I’m sure you want to your cats to be in a loving home and that you don’t want to burden anyone with veterinary and other expenses. Creating a trust for your cats will help guide you in selecting the best person to care for your animals and the amount of money that should be included – among other items.
What kinds of pets are covered under the Massachusetts Law?
Right now, you may create a trust for the care of any animal alive during the Grantor’s (the person creating the trust) lifetime. However, we expect the definition of animal to evolve through case law over time.
How will I know how much money should be left to support my animal?
Several factors will indicate how much money you should leave in trust for the care of your pet. They include: the life expectancy of your pet, the pet’s age, regular annual medical and grooming expenses, extraordinary medical expenses, caregiver compensation and food. The estate planning process will help you identify these costs and calculate how much money you should fund your trust with.
What happens to the money if there is any left after the pet dies?
That’s a good question. When the animal dies any remaining money will pass to the remainder beneficiaries (which could range from family members to charities). If no remainder beneficiaries are named, the money will go back to the Grantor (person who established the trust) if he or she is still living, or if not, then to the Grantor’s heirs at law in accordance with the Massachusetts intestacy statute (which dictates where a person’s assets go in the event that they die without an estate plan).
What happens to my dog if I die first without including him in my estate plan?
Believe it or not over 500,000 animals are put to death every year because their owners did not plan for the situation where they might predecease their pet. Expecting a family member or friend to step in and take care of your pet is unrealistic. If you have no family, strangers will likely decide what happens to your pet. To make sure that your dog is well cared for, your best bet is to include him in your estate plan through the use of a pet trust.
I already have an estate plan for myself. If I want to create a pet trust for my horses and dog does that get included in that plan or do I need a separate estate plan?
If you already have an estate plan, your attorney can amend it to include a pet trust. If you do not have an estate plan, an attorney can develop an estate plan for you which includes a pet trust.
When I have a trust developed for my pet, how does it get communicated to my vet that the caretaker is now responsible for her care? I want to be sure that the same vet will continue to treat her.
Once you have executed your pet’s trust, you can give your veterinarian a copy of the trust and ask them to note your file with the caregiver’s name and contact information. This is another reason why using a separate pet trust is practical – you can share information about your legal arrangements for your pet without having to circulate your other estate plan documents which likely contain more private financial and family information.
Your firm specializes on estate planning for people and businesses planning, why add a service that relates to animals?
In working with our clients during the estate and business planning process, we’ve come to know and respect the deep bond they develop with their pets. We’ve also heard clients express concerns about how their pets’ needs will be met when they are no longer able to care for them. In the end, it was a natural move for our firm to add Equine and Pet Trust Planning to our list of legal services.