To many people, pets are more than just furry property. They are family members. Yet the law is clear in that a pet belongs to you, and apart from relatively recent animal welfare laws, a pet is simply property.
As such, when you pass away without making a formal arrangement to care for your pet, you are risking the fate of your pet – if you have not made arrangements and no one in your family goes through the process to take care of and obtain the rights to your cat, dog, horse, or other domestic animal, then they will usually end up in a shelter.
We assume that our family or friends will care for our pets after we pass away, but that is never a guarantee. Thankfully, there are several legal tools available to you to help you create a fund for your pet, alongside specific instructions for their care, typically lasting up until their death. One such tool is a pet trust.
What Is a Pet Trust?
We make many arrangements to deal with the deaths of our pet. We help them with their seniority, and advances in veterinary medicine means we can keep our companions alive, healthy, and happy longer than ever. But we rarely think of how to ensure our pet’s health and happiness when we are no longer around.
Arrangements to care for your pet after your passing are not just necessary for your own end-of-life arrangements. Sometimes, pet owners are permanently incapacitated or pass away unexpectedly, leaving their pets no legal protection or funds with which to ensure their survival and care in the hands of someone capable.
A pet trust allows you to ensure that a part of your remaining wealth after your death will be used to help pay for your pet’s continued care, until they pass away. In California, there is no limit on how long a pet trust lasts, other than the life of the pet or pets included in the trust.
Most pet owners do not have a pet trust because they either did not know they could create one, or they figure it too unlikely that they would pass away before their pet. However, setting up a pet trust is simple and does not require much time or financial investment – while potentially ensuring that your pet has a caring home long after you are gone.
Not only can a pet trust ensure that part of your estate will be used to care for the animal – a pet trust can be used to specify instructions on how to care for the animal, including their likes and dislikes, favorite places to be, medical needs, personality quirks, and more. Pet trusts not only create a monetary fund for your pet, but they can be a set of instructions on how to care for them properly and can be used to designate exactly who should care for them.
Pet trusts are legally enforceable, meaning that not following the instructions of the trust after agreeing to it may lead to damages against whomever decided to take you up on being the caregiver. Trusts also go into effect if you are alive but incapacitated and incapable of caring for your pet due to physical or mental incapacitation (an illness, injury or worse).
Before you consider things said and done, be mindful of certain possibilities for fraud. To ensure that your pet is taken care of specifically, proper identification is important. Some pet owners use DNA samples as identifiers, while others rely on microchips. Other things to keep in mind include:
- Be sure to be precise with your instructions and leave little room for loose interpretation.
- Make note of the type of grooming your pet needs, and how often they should go to the vet.
- Work with a financial expert or lawyer to determine how much you should fund the trust, to cover your pet’s expenses, and how they should be distributed over the course of several years.
- Name a beneficiary for the remainder of the trust.
- Specify how your pet should be treated after death (burials/cremation/etc.).
Pet Trusts vs. Pets in Living Trusts
A pet trust specifically acts as a set of instructions on how to care for your pets, alongside the funding to do so. The pet trust does not have to be a completely separate document, it can consist of provisions in your revocable living trust. Given this, you can provide for both your family and pets through the same document. Generally, a living trust is a legal tool with which you change the ownership of certain accounts and properties, allowing you to name beneficiaries and control the disposition of assets in the case of your incapacity or after you pass away. The goal is to make matters as smooth as possible for your family or heirs, such that they can inherit without the time, expense, or hassle of dealing with probate court. Additionally, this lets you keep most of your estate out of the public record. If you have minor children, note that you will also want to have a last will and testament to nominate guardians for your minor children.
Providing for Your Pets After You’re Gone
Not only does a pet trust allow you to designate funds for your pet and instruct caregivers on how to care for them, you can also create a provision within it allowing you to give a right of refusal to several individuals in your family.
In this context, the right of refusal allows certain family members to either take up ownership of your pet, or refuse to, passing said right onto the next in line. While your sister might say she is up for taking care of your cat now, she may change her mind when the day comes – it is always a good idea, then, to have a backup plan. The last thing you want is for your pet to end up in a household that does not want them.
If a pet trust is not an option (for example, if you do not have the financial means to fund a pet trust when you pass away, or fear that you might not), then you can try to address who your pet will go to through your last will and testament, and through informal arrangements for that individual or individuals to financially care for your pets. However, a pet trust is the best way to ensure that there will be financial assets to be used exclusively for your pet.
Always make sure to first speak to any potential caregivers about taking care of your pet after you pass away, even if they are family or close friends. It is important to have a lengthy discussion with your family to figure out who is best suited to taking care of your pets after you pass away, to ensure that they have a loving and caring home even after you have gone.