What Happens to My Pets When I Die?
Many pet-owners don’t actually think of their animals primarily as “pets.” Instead, another word springs to mind: family. Estate plans should take care both of the client and the client’s family members, whether they are cat, dog, horse or human.
The trouble is that when creating an estate plan, attorneys often forget that an estate plan can provide for long-term pet care through what is known as a pet trust.
Why do we forget? Some attorneys just don’t have pets so they don’t consider them family. Those attorneys don’t work here. The other reason is that pet trusts, which fund pet care and designate a pet guardian, are new to many states including Maryland, where the pet trust law took effect in 2009.
Pet species is not an issue. Provided you own the pet, trusts can be created for equestrian care, canine care, feline care or any other “-ine” care after you die.
Without a pet trust in your estate plan, when you die these furry family members may find themselves in the care of an irresponsible guardian or pound/shelter if no pet guardian is available.
The Pet Trust: Estate Planning for Animals Family
Setting up a pet trust requires careful consideration just like any other trust. You will need to think about your desires, your pet’s needs and how best to accomplish your goals. When you hire an attorney to create a pet trust, consider the following:
Identification. Leave no question as to which pet should benefit from the trust. This is especially important with pure breeds of dogs and cats, as well as horses; if the pet is financially valuable or a large sum of money is required to care for the pet, identification is vital. Consider photos, veterinary records, a microchip, and even DNA testing.
Separating responsibilities. For the pet’s benefit, name different people as the trustee (to manage the funds), the caretaker (to use the funds for the pet care), and the beneficiary (to whom the funds are disbursed after the pet’s death). In some states, one person may have all the responsibilities but that’s risky if the person caring for the pet is the same person benefiting financially from the pet’s death.
Formalizing a contract. Have the pet caretaker sign an agreement to provide proper care and relinquish care to a successor if the promised care is not provided.
Contingencies. What if the pet outlives the caretaker? What if the caretaker fails to provide proper care? Name successors, just in case. Include an approved sanctuary or shelter of last resort.
Definitions. The trust should define what constitutes “proper care” for the pet. Justified expenses could include food, housing, veterinary and dental care, toys, exercise routines, grooming, compensation for the caretaker and burial/cremation fees. Farm animals, race horses and other large or financially valuable animals may even require a full-time caretaker.
Liability. Insurance should be considered to cover any potential damage caused by the pet to persons and/or property.
Uncle Sam. If the caretaker is subject to additional taxes resulting from trust distributions, you may want to increase the distributions to offset the additional tax liability.
A calculator. How much money will be required to provide for this pet care? If you don’t have the assets, a life insurance policy on your life may provide the needed funds. This is a critical in a number of states. Maryland added specific language to prevent “millions” from going to care for a pet that might have a limited lifespan (the Leona Helmsley effect.) So not only will you need funds, but you’ll need to analyze exactly how much.
The pet’s estate. Will the trust end when the pet dies, or will it continue for the pet’s descendants? In some states, that’s not an option. What happens to any remaining funds? Do you want them to go to family members or to a charity?
Though recent events like Hurricane Sandy have made pet-owners more aware of the need for a pet trust, only 17 percent of pet-owners have planned for their pet’s future care.
Want to learn more about creating a pet trust in Maryland? We would love to hear from you.
The Fisher Law Office is renowned for its experience in estate planning, probate administration, asset protection, and business law. Annapolis attorney Randall D. Fisher has practiced for over 20 years, maintains the highest peer review rating for ethics (AV Preeminent) by Martindale-Hubbell, and is a sucker for long walks on the fairways.