Laws for Paws: How Pet Trusts Protect Your Furry/Feathered Family Members

By: / Living Trusts , Revocable Living Trusts , Trusts

Owning a pet is a significant source of joy, companionship, and happiness. Our pets become members of our family, and we love and care for them just as we love and care for our own children. More and more families take their pets on vacation. In fact, recent statistics show that a majority of all vacationers travel with their pets. 

Despite the societal trend towards treating and loving our “fur babies” like members of our family, the law takes a completely different approach. Legally, your pets are nothing more than personal property – the same as your car, television, or bed. This means that after you die, the law does not care what happens to your pets anymore that it cares about what happens to your car. Even if you have named a future caretaker or have a will the law does not require your pet’s caretaker to honor his or her promise to you. 

Luckily, there is a relatively simple strategy to ensure that your fur baby is protected after you die – a pet trust. For a lot of fur baby loving folks, the phrase “pet trust” may elicit a sarcastic eye roll, or a thought that a per trust is a bit “extreme.” After all, we have all read stories of millionaires who leave their million-dollar estate to their dog, cat, or bird. 

But pet trusts are not a tool limited for the extremely wealthy. Sadly, every year approximately 7 million pets end up in animal shelters after the death of their owners. Of those, more than half are euthanized. In reality, a pet trust is the only legally binding way to ensure your fur baby is protected.

Why a will or caregiver does not work.

A will is a legal document that tells a court where your property goes after you die. Most wills have a nomination for guardians of minor children, and some contain instructions for the care of your pets after you die. But a will is not sufficient to protect your pet. 

  1. The law treats your pet as personal property. You cannot make your pet a beneficiary of your will – just like you could not make your car the beneficiary of your will. Instead, at best your will can name a caregiver for your pets. But there is no legally binding way that a will or a court can force the caregiver to actually care for your pet. Even if you leave money for the care of your pet, the caregiver can legally take your pet to an animal shelter and keep your money. The law offers no protection whatsoever in these circumstances. 
  2. A will needs to go through probate, which is a year or two-year long court process. During that time your pets may be in limbo. They may need care without any access to your estate to provide that care. 
  3. A will only goes into effect after your death and only after it has been “proved” in a probate court. Therefore, if you are incapacitated or sick your pets are not protected. 

A pet trust is the only option for owners who want to protect their pets. 

What is a “pet trust?” A pet trust is just like every other trust. It is a legally binding document that names a trustee (someone who is in charge of the trust property) and tells the trustee what he or she must do with the trust property. A pet trust sets aside some (or all) of your estate for the care of your pet. It then tells the trustee what to do with the trust property to care for your pet. After the death of your pet or pets your estate passes to your human beneficiaries. A pet trust is ideal for three reasons:

  1. Since the trust is a legally binding document, if the trustee does not do what the trust says, there is an immediate cause of action for breach of trust and the trustee can be ordered to comply. 
  2. A trust operates at death and incapacity. Therefore, your pet never has to wait for a complicated probate process or wait out a prolonged illness. Instead, the trustee of the pet trust can immediately act to protect your pet. 
  3. A trust gives you a system of checks and balances to ensure that your wishes are honored. 

How to create a pet trust.

In order to create a pet trust, you need three elements. First, you need to name a trustee. The trustee is the person who will manage the trust money to care for your pet. Second, you need to name a caretaker. The caretaker is the person who will actually care for your pet. Sometimes the trustee and caretaker are the same person, but it is a good idea to make them separate persons so that both the trustee and the caretaker can be a check and balance on the other – they can make sure the other person is doing their job. 

Finally, you need to name a beneficiary who will inherit the trust estate after the death of your pet (or if you have multiple pets, the death of the last pet). Pets cannot inherit an estate. If you do not name a beneficiary, then the laws of your State will control where the remaining trust funds go on your pet’s death. So, it is a good idea to name a human person to be the beneficiary, especially if you do not want the State to choose. 

If you are considering how to care for your pet after your death, give us a call (951) 228-9979 and arrange a time to talk to one of our personal legacy lawyers to discuss how to create your pet trust. 

 

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