Part 3- “Estate Planning Today” Series: Should I Include a Pet Trust as Part of my Estate Plan?

Our lives and technology are changing faster than ever and our estate plans need to keep up with these changes. This series will look at things that may not have been addressed or asked about in the estate planning process 5-10 years ago, but are important to many families today.

In the first part of the series, we looked at firearms. Firearms are valuable personal property that can be very important to some people. We explored how firearms cannot be left to others in the same way that you would leave other property, as they are subject to strict government and state regulations and transfer rules. Click here to read Part 1.

In the second part of the series, we focused on digital assets. Digital assets are a significant part of the financial lives of many people, and they would have an incomplete estate plan if those assets and accounts were not considered as part of the planning process. In fact, a recent study showed people in the U.S. value their digital assets at nearly $55,000. Digital assets can include online banking and arrangements to pay bills online, storage of important documents and information, and log-in credentials for valuable benefits, such as frequent-flier miles. Click here to read Part 2.

There are trusts and other strategies available for things like firearms, digital assets, planning for pets, and life planning, but what are the advantages and disadvantages of including them as part of your estate plan? Part 3 of this series will look at estate planning for pets and how you can include your beloved furry friends in your estate planning.

Part 2: Estate Planning for Pets

Many of us who think of our pets as family members want to ensure that they are cared for after we become incapable of doing so. One way to fulfill this responsibility is to set up a pet trust, or a legally sanctioned arrangement that provides for the care and maintenance of your pet(s) in the event of their your disability or death.

Until around 10 years ago, pet owners had no formal legal way to leave behind money to care for their animals. According to Kara Holmquist of the SPCA, “too many animals are landing in shelters after the owners have died”. “On any given day,” she said, “there are animals in shelters whose owners have passed away or become incapacitated. That’s unnecessary, especially if the owner had the means to provide for the pet’s care, because it means the shelter space is not available for another homeless animal.

Because pet trusts are enforceable by law, pet owners can have peace of mind knowing their pets will be cared for according to their instructions. The directions left in a trust can be very specific, and can even include your pet’s favorite brand of food, how many times you visit the veterinarian, and your pet’s walk/exercise schedule. A trust that goes into effect while the pet owner is still alive can provide instructions for the care of the animals in the event that the pet owner becomes gravely sick or injured. Since pet owners know the particular habits of their animals better than anyone else, they can describe the kind of care their pets should have and provide a list of the person(s) who would be willing to provide that care.

Unlike a Will, which has to wind through the nightmare of probate, a Pet Trust should be created along with your living trust and should be designed to take effect immediately upon your incapacity or death so that your beloved companion does not have to linger in a shelter while the courts cut through paperwork. Most pet owners opt to leave pets to family or a close friend. The main value of the pet trust is the fact it’s legally enforceable. If your designated caretaker does not live up to obligations, the courts can step in.

The most famous Pet Trust may belong to Trouble Helmsley, the late Leona Helmsley’s Maltese and the dog that grabbed headlines when a judge slashed her trust fund from $12 million to $2 million. Recent laws won’t prevent the judge from curbing the pet trusts’ dollar amounts if the amount seems “excessive.”

Since there are several states in which a pet trust is not valid, and other states where enforcement is discretionary, it is advisable to set up a trust with the help of a Certified Elder Law Attorney, such as Evan H. Farr, who specializes in estate planning. If you live in Virginia, the law (Virginia Va. Code Ann. § 55-544.08) states that “A trust may be created for the care of an animal or animals alive during the settlor’s lifetime.  The trust terminates upon the death of the animal, or upon the death of the last surviving animal covered by the trust.”

You can find out more at your complimentary consultation at The Fairfax Estate Planning Law Firm of Evan H. Farr, P.C.  You can then decide if the trust makes financial sense for you and your family. If so, we can work with you to include all of your pet’s needs and your wishes for your pet, and name a caretaker and a trust administrator for when the inevitable happens.

Please call 703-691-1888 to make an appointment for a consultation. While you are in the office, be sure to visit with all of the animals who live here, including Saki and Alley (our Siamese cats), Big Red (our betta fish), Ernie and Jannette (our African Dwarf Frogs), and Commander Bun Bun (our lop-eared love bunny) and Baxter (our newest office pet who you will hear more about soon!) be sure to read our “Critter Corner” column in our Friday “Ask the Expert” newsletter each week.

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About Renee Eder

Renee Eder is the Director of Public Relations for the Farr Law Firm, and gives the voice to the Critters of Critter Corner. Renee’s poodle, Penny, is an official comfort dog who she and her children bring to visit with seniors who are in the early stages of dementia at a local senior home once a month.