Why You Should Get a Trust For Your Pet ASAP · The Wildest

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Why You Should Get a Trust For Your Pet ASAP

Making sure your pet is financially set isn’t weird — it’s smart.

by Rebecca Wallick, J.D.
Updated March 7, 2023
Woman cares for two dogs and a cat while sitting
Chewy / Unsplash

When “Queen of Mean” Leona Helmsley left $12 million in a trust for the care of her beloved Maltese, Trouble, she was ridiculed for excessive generosity toward an animal. More recently, the Netflix series Gunther’s Millions told the story of a German Shepherd who allegedly inherited hundreds of millions of dollars after his parent died (there’s a lot more to that story, though).

These high-profile cases, however bizarre, increased awareness of a valuable tool: the pet trust. End-of-life planning isn’t something many people are eager to do — but, as is true for most difficult issues, denial isn’t a strategy. It’s better to proactively plan for a time when you may not be able to care for your pals. While the idea of providing for a pet after the guardian’s death has been around for centuries, laws supporting pet trusts are a fairly recent creation.

Gerry W. Beyer, a law professor at Texas Tech University School of Law who specializes in estate planning, urges anyone considering a pet trust to find a knowledgeable attorney. “What if all of their property is in survivorship form? Then funding a pet trust through a will provision may not work. It’s just too risky to do without legal advice.” Beyer also points out the importance of planning — realistically — for the pet’s lifespan. “Discuss whether or not you want the trustee to pay for heroic medical care. Get real specific.”

Pet Trust Options

Stacey Romberg is a Seattle-area estate planning attorney specializing in pet trusts. At least half of her clients are concerned about providing for their pets. “Not every client needs a pet trust,” Romberg says. “Trusts are complex. Instead of setting up a trust, a client could give $10,000 and Buddy to a caregiver; lots of people do. It’s my job to explain the options and let the client decide.”

Romberg cites the case of one client who had a sick dog with special needs, including a cart for his hind legs. The client left $50,000 in a trust for her dog, knowing that otherwise her family or friends might be reluctant to spend that amount for a pet’s care.

On the other hand, Steve Smith, co-founder of Rolling Dog Ranch Animal Sanctuary in Montana, provides a cautionary tale about trusting family with your pet after your death. “We’ve found that family members sometimes can be unreliable caregivers; their willingness to care for a pet can change over time,” Smith says. “People make assumptions regarding their family loving their pet, when what will literally happen is, the day after the funeral, the pet is taken to the nearest shelter.”

Choosing a Caregiver

Finding the best trustee and caregiver for your pet is critical. Beyer strongly recommends choosing different people for each task; this can prevent any conflicts of interest. And the pet covered should be clearly identified. “In one case, a caregiver went through three black cats before anyone realized the original cat had long since died,” he says. Make sure the named caregiver is willing to take on the responsibility. That seems basic, but as Smith points out, you simply can’t assume.

Romberg advises clients to anticipate the costs of the pet’s care over their lifetime. “Figure out an average yearly expenditure, multiply that by the expected lifespan of the pet, then add for contingencies, like increased medical expenses and special needs as the pet ages,” she says. “I provide an information sheet that the client fills out for the trustee. It’s very detailed, intimate information, like how Buddy enjoys being scratched on his belly but not behind his ears — all the information the trustee and caregiver need.”

Trusts, Wills, and Protection Agreements

What if you don’t go to an attorney to have a pet trust included in your estate planning? What if you just add a sentence to your simple will, something like, “I leave $1,000 for the care of my dog, Fred.” Currently, in 40 states, this would create a statutory  pet trust, and your state’s laws regarding pet trusts will determine who actually spends that money on Fred’s behalf and where Fred lives. In the remaining states, a traditional trust (like those for children) would be created. If you want more control, then a pet trust drafted with the help of an experienced estate planning attorney is the way to go. Romberg emphasizes that any pet trust you end up with needs to be clear and understandable, both to you and to your chosen trustee.

Rachel Hirschfeld is an estate-planning attorney in New York City. “My whole life is making sure pets are safe,” she says. She helps people create pet trusts and pet-protection agreements. “What if you’re alive, but in the hospital, unable to care for your pet?” she asks. Hirschfeld’s pet protection agreement is like a power of attorney for your pet — it allows you to designate someone to step in, either temporarily or permanently, depending on the circumstances, to care for your pet.

Hirschfeld has clients complete a manual of care, with details about the pet’s life and usual standard of living. “I ask each client to ask the proposed pet guardian, ‘Are you willing to sign my manual of care?’” If not, they ask someone else. “I had a client who assumed her husband would be willing to care for her pet,” Hirschfeld says. “When I insisted she ask him, he admitted that he couldn’t care for the pet as well as she did and revealed that he didn’t want the responsibility. The wife named a different guardian.” Hirschfeld says the manual eases the transition for the pet and the caregiver.

The beauty of pet trusts and pet care agreements is that they can be tailored to suit the specific needs of individual pets. These documents also provide the peace of mind that, in the event you can’t be with them yourself, you’ve done everything you can to make the rest of their lives as wonderful as possible.

Practical Considerations

Law professor Gerry W. Beyer shares a few tips and considerations for setting up a pet trust.

Choosing a caregiver

They must be willing and able. Your pet should get along with the caregiver’s family and pets. Name an alternate or two.

Choosing a trustee

Make sure the trustee is willing. Consider paying the trustee or naming a corporate trustee.

Transferring ownership of the pet

“A specific gift of the animal to the trustee, in trust, is required, with instructions to deliver the pet to the caregiver,” Beyer says.

Indicating the desired standard of living

Leave specific, detailed, written instructions.

Funding the trust

Common arrangements include a set monthly amount, discretion for unexpected expenses, and reimbursement of expenses. It’s a good idea to require random inspections of the pet in the caregiver’s home.

Dispensing leftover funds

Consider giving the remainder to an animal welfare charity.

Rebecca Wallick, J.D.

Rebecca Wallick, was long-time contributing editor for The Bark magazine and retired family law attorney, she lives with two dogs and runs mountain trails at every opportunity.

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