Pet Trusts: Protecting Your Pet After Your Death

Humans are not the only Americans enjoying longer lifespans than a century ago. Thanks to progress in nutritional science and veterinary care, many of our four-legged and feathered friends are remaining strong, active, and alert well into and even beyond the traditional “golden years” of their species. As a result, it is more important than ever for pet owners to make arrangements for the continuing care of their beloved companions no matter what circumstances may arise. Pets that outlive their owners’ ability to care for them should never be left out in the cold.

Why an Informal Agreement for the Care of Your Pet Is Not Enough

Most pet owners have a trusted friend or relative who looks after Fido, Whiskers, or Polly when the pet owner is unable to do so due to travel or illness. In many cases, the two parties have even discussed the possibility of the friend or relative assuming responsibility for the animal’s care after the owner is gone. Unfortunately, such informal agreements, even if committed to paper, do not have the force of law behind them. If that friend or relative’s circumstances change one day, making it more difficult for them to care for your pet in your absence, your pet could end up at a shelter, lost and abandoned.

Can I Provide for the Care of My Pet in My Will?

The answer is yes, and the technical term for this approach is a “statutory trust.” However, even though wills are legally enforceable documents, using one as the vehicle to ensure your pet’s future care has many drawbacks.

First, a will only fully takes effect once it has passed through the process of review—and potential alteration—known as probate. Probate takes months to complete, and in the meantime, your pet will be in limbo. Most animals have less sophisticated, more specialized emotional mechanisms than humans, making them less able to adapt to changing circumstances. The trauma of an extended period of uncertainty about where home is and who will look after them can leave a pet emotionally shaken for years.

Second, a statutory trust only takes effect upon the pet owner’s death, so it will not protect your pet in the event you become incapacitated. Third, and perhaps most importantly, a statutory trust ultimately only allows pet owners to specify who will assume care of their pet and to leave that person a lump sum of money to cover associated costs. There is no way to offer legally enforceable instructions regarding how your pet should be fed, exercised, or cared for in the event of a sickness or injury.

Pet Trusts Offer Peace of Mind for Everyone

A pet trust is a stand-alone, legally binding document and financial arrangement that removes any uncertainty about your pet’s future. Pet trusts take effect immediately upon the pet owner’s death or incapacitation, without the need for review by a judge.

In addition to providing a mechanism through which your pet’s future guardian will receive necessary funds (on an ongoing basis rather than as a lump sum), pet trust documents afford you the opportunity to specify exactly how your faithful companion will be cared for, down to the smallest detail. From Fido’s park trips to play fetch, to Whiskers’ favorite organic cat food, to Polly’s voice lessons, you can preserve your pet’s familiar routine to help them through the difficult adjustment to life with a new caregiver. You can even provide end-of-life directives to ensure that your pet spends his or her last months and weeks in comfort.

The duration for which a pet trust remains in force varies from state to state, but in most situations, the arrangement will stay in effect until the animal passes away. Make sure your trust is set up with clear instructions for the distribution of any funds remaining in the trust at that time. Some pet owners leave remaining funds to their pet’s caregiver, while others use the opportunity to make a generous donation to the ASPCA, a local shelter, or another animal protection organization.

How Do I Set Up a Legally Binding Trust for My Pet?

Setting up a traditionally structured trust for any purpose, including for the future care of your pet, usually requires assistance from an attorney and a financial advisor. With a traditional trust structure, you will appoint not only your pet’s future caregiver (who must be a signee of all documents establishing the trust), but also one or more trustees or investment trustees and/or a trust manager. In theory, the caregiver and the trustee or manager could be the same person, but segregation of responsibilities is advisable. Caring for a pet is, and should be, emotional. Trustees and trust managers are one step removed from that emotion, and therefore well positioned to provide objective oversight and ensure that your every instruction for the care of your furry, scaly, or feathered soul mate is carried out to the letter.

As an alternative to setting up a full-fledged, traditional pet trust, there are online legal services that offer simplified, fill-in-the-blank animal care trust agreements. The documents are legally binding, but they do not allow for the appointment of a trustee or manager and so do not offer the guarantee of objective oversight that traditionally structured trusts provide.

Conclusion: The Care of Your Pet Is a Key Component of Estate Planning

In the eyes of state governments, your pet is property, legally no different from your house or car. You certainly do not view your pet that way, nor should you. Yet the way states view the matter is an important reminder that diligent, thorough estate planning should include making certain that the companion who has added so much to your life will live in comfort for the rest of theirs.