Estate planning for man's best friend

Most states now allow the creation of pet trusts and pet protection agreements as part of comprehensive estate planning.

The American Veterinary Medicine Association (AVMA) reports that approximately 85 million American households have one or more “companion animals” (defined as dogs, cats, birds or horses), representing around 157 million individual pets. That number climbs higher when “specialty” and “exotic” pets like fish, rabbits, rodents, reptiles, poultry and livestock are considered.

Pets are often loved, appreciated and treated like members of the family. The bond that people feel with their animals leads many to include their pets as part of their estate plan, leaving property and care instructions tailored to the continued care of their pets. While the sentiment behind such bequests is laudable, pets are legally considered to be property themselves, so they cannot inherit, and instructions included in a will might be classified as “honorary” in nature, not legally enforceable. This means that, while you may wish for your beloved companion to live with someone in particular if something happens to you, and put language indicating such in your will, that person might not be under any legal obligation to actually do it, even if you left funds earmarked for the animal’s care as a condition.

So, how can you rest assured that your best friend will be cared for after you are gone? This dilemma can be addressed with the use of a relatively recent legal construct: the pet trust.

What is a pet trust?

A pet trust operates similarly to many other revocable and irrevocable trusts in that there are funds set aside for a beneficiary – in this case, the pet – and conditions set in place regarding the dispensation of those funds. Unlike language in a will, conditions set forth in a trust (provided they are legal and don’t violate public policy) must be followed in order for the funds to be disbursed. Pet trusts can be used in conjunction with Pet Protection Agreements or can be standalone, but the point is that detailed instruction can be provided about caring for your pet, including:

  • Who gets custody of the pet
  • What types of food (brand, texture) the animal prefers
  • Who should treat the pet (veterinarian, veterinary dentist, specialists)
  • Grooming preferences
  • Walking/activity preferences
  • Circumstances under which – if any – the animal should be re-homed or an alternative care provider should be chosen in the event that the chosen caregiver is unable to fulfill his or her duties
  • What will happen to any remaining funds left over after the animal dies (they can go to family members, charitable organizations, shelters, etc.)

Do you have questions about pet trusts, or any other estate planning-related issues that are important to you? Would you like to learn more about providing for your furry loved ones in your estate plan? For more information, contact The Elder & Disability Advocacy Firm of Christine A. Alsop, LLC. Call the office locally in the St. Louis area 314-644-3200 or toll free at 800-578-0384; you can also contact them online.