Have you put into writing what would happen to your pets should they survive you or you become incapacitated? Does anyone else know? If you’re like a lot of pet parents, you’ve thought about it but just haven’t gotten around to making an actual, legally-binding plan for this worst-case scenario. Maybe you’re young and healthy, but don’t let that fool you--accidents, natural disasters, and other tragedies can leave your pets without able caretakers.
Molly Wootton, a pet parent and founder of Molly’s Mutts and Meows, a Los Angeles-based rescue, shares a horror story: “The niece of a woman we know said she would care for her aunt's dog, should her aunt pass. Well, at the age of 70, the aunt passed during a simple shoulder surgery. The niece wanted nothing to do with the dog. It was terrible.”
Without proper plans outlined in a will, and funds set aside in a trust, your pets could end up in a shelter, left behind in your empty house, be let loose to fend for themselves on the streets, or worse. Luckily, you can take the steps now to provide for your pets for the rest of their lives, regardless of what happens to you.
What is a Pet Trust?
A pet trust is a legally-sanctioned plan that provides for the care and maintenance of your pets in the event of your death or incapacitation (pet trusts are recognized in all states except Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, and Mississippi - to assess your options if you live in one of those states, click here). It can either be its own document or included as part of your larger will or trust.
How to Set One Up
To set up a trust for your pet, you can contact your family attorney or a law firm that specializes in pet trusts. There are also websites such as legalzoom, and software like Quicken WillMaker, that provide helpful and legit ways of getting this pet-specific task done on your own. (Note: be sure to carefully read about the legality and terms of any self-serve tools you use, and ask questions of the service to ensure your pets are fully protected. If you have any doubts, it can’t hurt to have your final product looked at by a lawyer, just to be safe.)
Joe McHugh is an attorney at LA Law Center, LLP, and his wife, Kathy, is their VP for Business Development. They warn: “You need to see an attorney that understands and also cares for pets to ensure the documents are prepared properly. Some discounted legal services can cause more trouble than good when it comes to estate planning for family and pets.”
A Growing Industry
Kathy says, “around 25% of clients want to have pet language in their estate planning documents. [Interest in this among our clients] is increasing, especially since we advertise this service on our website. Sometimes people call just to create a pet trust, as their pets are their only family.” But creating a pet trust isn’t just for the “eccentric or rich,” as LA Law Center’s website points out. Lisa Rakiewicz of Streamwood, IL, is a mom and former pet parent (her cats have since passed) who says “we added pets the first time we created our wills simply because we owned pets and wanted them cared for. Just as one would for a child. The plan was for all pets to stay together--and to remain with our child as well.”
What to Include
When putting together your pet trust and will, you can never be too specific. Be as detailed as possible and update it frequently. Some things to include:
Type of food
Schedule and procedure for routine and emergency veterinarian care
Instructions for burial or cremation
Funds to provide for the pet’s needs and the administration of the pet trust
When determining how much money to set aside in your pet trust, you should strike a balance between making sure you provide enough to cover your pet’s needs but not giving so much that it could lead to unsavory battles over the funds. Consider:
Average monthly cost of your pet currently
Your pet’s current age, health status and life expectancy
Additional funding needs as pet ages (more trips to the vet and specialists, medicines, special supplies or equipment)
Selecting a Caretaker, Trustee, and Executor
In your trust, you can identify the person (or people) who will be your pet’s guardian or the party responsible for finding a new home for your pet, and you can identify a party responsible for the management of funds and administration of the will and trust. Just make sure that you approach the parties, ask them formally, and have serious discussions about your desired role for them; don’t just write them into the trust and assume they will be okay with it.
Be thoughtful with your selection--consider parties who are animal people themselves and parties who will respect your wishes. If you don’t have any family members or friends who would be a good fit, don’t despair. Poly Veitzer, a cat parent and animal rescue volunteer in Los Angeles, CA suggests, “talk to the rescue the animals are from (or an unrelated one). Make sure to leave money! The more money available, the more likely a rescue will step in to help even if they aren't the rescue the animal is from.”
Veitzer says, “I have an executor of the will who will manage the money part--she is also a board member of a reputable rescue. My two female cats will go back to their rescuer. She and I are still friends and she will take care to place them in a proper home! 2/3 of the money is set aside for that. The rest of it goes for my little boy cat. He will most likely go to the rescue my executor is on the board of.”
While having multiple parties involved as caretaker, trustee, and executor helps with checks and balance, it might not be a bad idea to get all of your parties together around the same table to make sure everyone is on the same page. Nancy Wild of Woodland Hills, CA tells how she was the identified caretaker of a cat in a friend’s will, but that she ultimately had a lot of problems with her friend’s sisters, who were the trustees and executors. When the cat had medical problems and Wild attempted to reach the sisters for reimbursement, as provided for in the trust, “I’d call them about the bill, and they’d start acting like lunatics and [threatening me]. Just downright nutty and scary stuff!” Even though there is no absolute guarantee all will go well once you’re gone, taking time now to mitigate problems can go a long way.