May is National Pet Month and celebrates the joy and benefits that pets bring to people’s lives. It’s a unfortunate fact that many well-loved pets become orphans or neglected when their owners die or become incapacitated. If family members, friends or neighbors don’t intervene, these pets will likely enter animal shelters where they may be euthanized if new homes are not found. Since pets are often considered part of the family, it is critical to plan for their future in the event the unexpected happens.
Providing for your pets does not have to be complicated. It may be as simple as talking it over with your children, friends or other relatives and ensuring that they would welcome your pets into their homes. For larger animals such as horses, there may be a retirement farm where you want them to live out their days and ensure they are cared for. If you don’t know for sure where your dog, cat, ferret, bird, reptile, fish, rabbit, guinea pig or other pets will end up, do not leave their future to chance. For your peace of mind and the health and comfort of your non-human family members, you need to do some advanced planning. Some pets with very long lifespans, including some parrot and turtle species, may long outlive their owners. Certain turtles can easily live over 100 years and even the common goldfish can last up to 10 years!
What Are Your Pet Planning Options?
Most states have laws addressing Pet Trusts. Growing in popularity, pet trusts are similar to other trusts that people set up to provide for beneficiaries or care for family members. A pet trust provides a specified amount of money to be held in trust for the ongoing care of one or more pets. It generally terminates upon the death of the last surviving animal covered by the trust. Schedule a free consultation with an Estate Planning Attorney at the Herzog Law Firm to further discuss Pet Trusts and planning options for animals.
Some Elements to Consider in a Pet Trust:
Trustee – You need to designate a person who will be the willing trustee if you are incapacitated or pass away. Ideally, it should be someone who likes animals and will act in the best interest of your pet. It is also a good idea to appoint an alternate trustee in case your first choice cannot fulfill the obligation or does not want to.
Caregiver – Decide who will be the actual caregiver (as well as successor if necessary). The caregiver can also be the trustee, but does not have to be. Caregivers can be incentivized for the willingness to care for your pets. You may also look at professional caregiving facilities or organizations that may accept animals such as retirement farms, animal sanctuaries, breeding programs, and educational or therapy programs. Some assisted living or nursing homes may even provide options for shared community pets among the residents. Planning in advance will give you the decision making ability, options and flexibility.
Funding – One of the most common questions we get on Pet Trusts is how to determine how much money will go into the trust. The deciding factors should include the type of animal, the age, health, life expectancy, future food costs, potential future health needs, and the standard of living you wish the pet to have. While there are high profile celebrity examples such as Oprah and Betty White, who have established trusts with millions of dollars, most pet trusts are not as lavish. Trusts can also be funded by life insurance.
Standard of Living – You can specify nutritional needs, which veterinarian to use and other preferences. Some of the wealthiest pups have a specified life of luxury with mansions, fine dining, personal maids and a butler.
Distributions – What circumstances should trigger distributions for your pet’s needs? Besides reasonable care, you may specify regular six-month check-ups, monthly grooming, spa visits or the services of an additional dog walker.
Remains – What do you want to happen to your pet’s remains after they pass? For some dedicated owners, they want their furry friend’s ashes to be sprinkled with them or reserve a plot next to them.
Pet Legacy – With modern technology, your pet’s legacy can be preserved through various types of breeding programs and methods and even cloning. For prize-winning thoroughbred horses and purebred dogs, lineage can be a lucrative business. You can decided who will control the future offspring and benefit from the sale or winnings.
The world’s richest dog, Gunther VI, with a reported net worth of $373 million, inherited the massive fortune from his canine-father Gunther III’s wealthy owner, German countess Karlotta Liebenstein. When Liebenstein died in 1991 , she left her estate of $81 million to her beloved German Shepherd. Who will control if there is a Gunther V, VI, and VII that will carry on this family legacy for years to come? And the wealth doesn’t just go to the dogs. Among the other World’s richest pets include the multi-millionaire, internet sensation Grumpy Cat, Blackie, a cat who received $25 million after the death of his owner Ben Rea, and Gigoo, a chicken who inherited $15 million from British publishing mogul Miles Blackwell.
Remainder Beneficiary – Finally, you need to designate the person(s) or charity to receive the amount that remains in the trust after your pet dies.
Other Estate Planning Considerations for Pets
Important: Courts have some discretion concerning how pet trusts are administered. Some states impose funding limits. As illustrated by Leona Helmsley’s famous estate and her dog “Trouble”, a large amount of money left to an animal may involve court intervention and determination by a judge whether to put back into an estate. In addition, there are a handful of states where pet trusts are not valid. Therefore, pet trusts or alternative arrangements must be carefully planned and comply with the laws in your state in order to be upheld.
Much like you would make plans to have someone watch over a pet during a vacation or bring the pet to a facility where there would be cared for, it is important to have a backup caregiver for if you become incapacitated. Your agents should know that you have a pet and you can assign a representative that will implement your pet care plan in case of emergency.
If you prefer not to establish a trust, you can also leave your pet to someone as a bequest in your Will. This is possible because the law views animals as property. If you do this, you should still also consider an alternate caregiver, special requests such as choice of veterinarian, instructions for special needs, and possibly a cash distribution to help pay for the pet’s ongoing care. Because animals are considered property under the law, if you do not make specific provisions, a pet will go to the person or persons who receive your tangible property. That may be acceptable to you, but it is still important to talk to that person to make sure they want or allowed to have a pet where they reside.
To help ensure the future well being of your pet, it is important to consult with an estate planning attorney about how to proceed. Call us at 1-800-777-7581 to schedule a consultation.