Sep 13

Planning for Your Pets: Why a Trust is Preferred

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by Erin C. Eurenius, Esq, CPA and Ann Watt

Arthur and Patsy enjoying the beach in 2016.

It is a running joke in my house that my husband and I only work to keep our dogs in the lifestyle to which they have become accustomed. We laugh it off while we shake our heads and acknowledge that while it is funny; it is steeped in truth. The king and queen of our home are a male miniature schnauzer named Arthur (Artie if you are close) and a female miniature schnauzer named Patsy, my six-year-old shadow. I am happy to spend money on them to ensure that they are happy and healthy; but it does come at a high cost. I recently sat down and calculated estimated monthly expenses for these two dogs and it came to $300/month. Here is the breakdown:
Food = $50
Grooming = $80
Kenneling – $50
Treats/Toys = $20
Vet = $100

This tally gets a person to thinking. The average miniature schnauzer has a lifespan of 12-14 years, and the average lifespan of a dog in the US is 12.8 years. Taking my $300/month tally for my two dogs and extrapolating that out over the course of 12.8 years, I should expect to spend $46,080 for my two dogs. Imagine the costs if my pets had longer lifespans (like horses, birds, and some reptiles).

Even with those shocking numbers, there is only one thought that keeps me up at night. My husband and I are childless, and I am an only child. My parents live in a condominium in Florida that does not allow for pets. If something were to happen to both my husband and I, what would happen to our dogs? My husband has brothers and we have friends, but how can I ensure that my dogs will be taken care of in our absence? It is my responsibility to prepare accordingly and take all necessary steps to ensure that my dogs do not end up with a stranger or worse; the pound.

A few years ago, I had an attorney draw up last will and testaments for my husband and me. We addressed our dogs within the Will and had been operating under the understanding that if we passed away, our dogs would go to my husband’s brother. It said so in the Will.

In September 2016 I started to work for Butcher Elder Law and it became clear to me that the Will alone was not going to cut it. Wills only become effective in the case of death. What would happen if my husband and I became incapacitated? Or, what if we were placed in a long-term care facility that would not allow for pets? I needed to set up a Pet Trust.

A Pet Trust is preferred over leaving bequests in a last will and testament for many reasons including:

1. Pets are property according to the law – You may treat your pet like a family member, but the court system views pets as personal property. If you have a Will instructing a family member to care for your pet, that family member may not have the resources to care for your pet. A will takes time to probate and the court may not allow for distributions right away. Your pet cannot wait for care.

2. You can leave specific guidelines – A Pet Trust typically lists a trustee for the trust and a caregiver for the pet. There can be one individual fulfilling both roles, or two separate individuals. The trustee can handle the financial portion of the trust and the caregiver can focus on the pet. The caregiver should be given guidance as to how the pet should be cared for during their lifetime. Pet owners can be very particular when it comes to their pet. Perhaps your animals have never been kenneled during their lifetime or you prefer your pet’s teeth cleaned without Anesthesia. Whatever the request may be, you can list the guidelines that the caregiver should follow. We recommend putting in guidelines about love and nurture of the pet, feeding guidelines, and whether a pet should go outdoors. We also ask pet owners to include end of life decisions and funeral and burial plans. Specific monetary guidelines can also be included.

3. You can provide for back-up plans – Many estate plans fail because they only cover the here and now. While a pet trust would list any currently living pets that you own, it is important that the document include a phrase to cover any future pets that you own. Additionally, the pet trust can cover situations once you are deceased, but can provide guidelines while you are still living, yet unable to care for your pet. This is essential for owners of pets that have lengthy lifespans such as birds. One should not assume that they will be capable of caring for their pet forever. A Pet Trust also lists what happens if the caregiver that you named is not able to care for your pet. You can list other caregivers to ensure a greater peace of mind.

4. You can create a pet panel for the trust – A Pet Panel is made up of members of your choosing. They will hold the caregiver and trustee accountable for their actions. The panel may be able to make final decisions regarding caregiver bonuses or a replacement caregiver. The panel may request quarterly reports about the health and well-being of the pet. The purpose of the panel is to provide oversight to ensure the continued care of your pet.

5. List remainder beneficiaries – Just in case your pet(s) does not use all the funds left in the trust, you can list where the funds should go. Remainder beneficiaries can include relatives, friends, or charities.

The Pet Trust can be as simple or complex as you would like to have it be. The bottom line is that the trust is preferred because it provides the means for your pet to be cared for during your life and after your death. Call Butcher Elder Law at 440-268-8284 to set up an appointment to discuss creating a pet trust for your four-legged family member!