Estate Planning for Animal Lovers: Pet Trusts 101

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From Alaska to New Jersey, an increasing number of states have passed laws that allow pet owners to set up trusts to provide for their companion animals. Much like a living trust, a pet trust is a legal document that allows you to control how your pet will be cared for in the event of your death. Given the significant bond pet owners feel toward their pets, this type of trust is an invaluable way to provide your pet with protection.

It's important to note that the laws concerning pet trusts can differ from state to state. There is specific legal language required to establish an enforceable trust for the care of a pet. The following states have adopted some version of the Uniform Probate Code's law on animal trusts: Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, District of Columbia, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.

However, even if you do not live in a state with specific laws governing pet trusts, there are a few basics that may still allow you to provide for your pet. Most importantly, money should never be left directly to a pet in a will or a trust. While you may consider your pet to be a beloved member of your family, US laws generally regard pets as property. As property, pets cannot directly receive money or property as beneficiaries can. Instead, you can appoint a person to serve as the "guardian" of your pet in a last will and testament. Although this arrangement lacks the formality of an official pet trust, you can still leave the guardian a certain amount of money to take care of your pet.

In a pet trust, as with any trust, a beneficiary must be named. Simply, a pet trust should specify a human beneficiary to act as a caretaker for the pet. This choice is one of the most important in setting up a pet trust, since the beneficiary will handle all future daily care for your pet.

It's a good idea to designate a second choice of beneficiary, in the event that the caretaker is unable or unwilling to assume responsibility for the pet. This election allows you to avoid enforcement issues that could arise. For example, a sum of money is typically left to a caretaker on the condition that the animal is properly cared for. However, courts do not often enforce these gifts.

Under a trust, the caretaker, or human beneficiary, will be supervised by a trustee. A trustee is someone you select to distribute money and property to your pet's caretaker. The trustee handles the financial matters; however, the trustee also may be designated the responsibility of monitoring the health and welfare of your pet. Again, you may also want to designate a second choice.

The trust should state your wishes for your pet at the time of your death. In addition, you should take the time to specify the name, breed, and genetic information, as well as listing distinguishing mark of your pet. Identifying your pet clearly will prevent fraud. Though difficult to hear, there have been cases where a caretaker continued collecting on a trust by simply purchasing a new animal that matched the first pet.

In order to create a viable trust, you must designate or set aside a certain amount of money or property which will be used for the care for your pet. Consider how much you currently spend on your pet's care and medical expenses to decide what standard of care you wish to provide for financially. This decision may depend on your pet's life expectancy and even the size of your estate. The trust property may also provide a stipend to pay the caretaker and trustee for their services.

You may also wish to consider specifying how the money will be dispersed to cover the daily standard of care you want to provide for your pet. You should provide instruction on as many details as you can. From favorite foods and sleeping arrangements to medical prescriptions, any special needs your pet may have should be detailed so that the caretaker you have selected can easily manage the transition. By providing specific instructions, you can help ensure that your pet will be cared for—according to your wishes—for the rest of its lifetime.

A LegalZoom Last Will includes a free pet guardianship clause so you can specify your wishes for all your loved ones—even the furry ones.