Conchita, April Maria and Lucia live in a palatial, $8.3-million Miami mansion. The trio – who happen to be Chihuahuas – will spend the rest of their lives in luxury because their dog mom, the late socialite Gail Posner, bequeathed the mansion and a $3 million trust fund to the pooches in 2010.
While Posner’s and Helmsley’s over-the-top pooch trust funds quickly became the butt of jokes, it’s no laughing matter to ensure that your own dogs are taken care of when it’s time for you to make your journey to the Rainbow Bridge.
Until recently, there were no guarantees that your pets would be taken care of according to your wishes. You had to transfer “ownership” of your pets, along with the money to take care of them, to someone in whom you had complete faith. Pet trusts were not enforceable by law, so if the person you chose didn’t keep their promise of caring for your pets, little could be done about it.
According to the Animal Legal & Historical Web Center, one reason trusts for pets were not successful in the past was because pets were viewed as personal property – and property (the pet) cannot legally own property (the money in the trust). Another problem was that pets could not legally be beneficiaries to trust funds.
But over the years, pets have become regarded more as family members instead of mere property, and advances in veterinary care have prolonged their lifespans.
To address this, the Uniform Trust Code (UTC) was enacted in 2000. It allows pet parents to both set up a trust for their four-legged family members and authorize the court to appoint someone to enforce the trust. With this code, pets became legally relevant, meaning they are now recognized as having income and assets that must be protected within the legal system.
“Ten years ago, people thought it was almost funny to talk about estate planning for pets,” Gerry W. Beyer, a Texas Tech University law professor and author of “Fat Cats & Lucky Dogs,” told vetstreet.com. “The interest is now very serious … it’s gone from fringe to mainstream.”
In fact, animal law, which includes pet trusts, is among the fastest-growing legal specialties, according to the American Bar Association. Between 12 and 27 percent of pet parents include their animals in estate planning, reports MSPCA-Angell, a nonprofit specializing in animal care and veterinary medicine.
The UTC or similar pet-trust laws are currently supported in all U.S. states except Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota and Mississippi.
The laws vary by state (refer to the ASPCA’s list for details), but the Animal Legal & Historical Web Center reports that, at a minimum, pet parents only need to add a few sentences to a regular will or living trust that specify the amount to be spent on the pet and the trustee to carry it out under court supervision. You can indicate whether the trust is to take effect when you die or when a disability prevents you from taking care of your pet.
If the pet trust is part of your general estate planning, Jeffrey Schmidt, Fifth Third trust officer, told the Chicago Tribune it should cost no more than $250 to $500.
The website of law firm Mortensen & Reinheimer, PC recommends that you select a trusted family member or friend who is willing to accept responsibility for your pet’s care for the remainder of your pet’s life. As “trustee,” this person will oversee the trust fund and make payments as necessary to your dog’s caregiver.
Tips for Drafting a Pet Trust
In a separate written document attached to your will or living trust, be very specific about the care you want your dog to receive. Lawyers.com recommends that you include the following information:
- The name and address of the trustee and an alternate trustee (in case the original trustee is unable to serve)
- The name and address of the caregiver and alternate caregiver
- Detailed information identifying your pet (such as microchip or DNA info)
- The standard of living and care you wish for your pet, including the type of food your dog prefers, his exercise routine, frequency of vet visits
- Any health conditions for which your dog requires medication or treatment
- A detailed description of the property that will fund the trust
- How the remainder of the trust should be distributed once your pet dies (for example, if it should be donated to your favorite charity)
- Instructions for your dog’s burial or cremation
You also need to carefully estimate how much money to set aside for your dog. While you’re probably not planning to leave anything in the ballpark of $12 million, if you fund the trust with much more money than is likely to be necessary, a court may step in and declare the trust “excessive” and invalid after you die.
According to LawyersUSA, the average amount set aside for pets is $25,000.
Toronto estate lawyer Barry Seltzer told The Globe and Mail there is no “magic formula,” but suggested that pet parents consider the following when calculating a sufficient amount:
- The number of years you estimate your dog will live
- The cost of food per year
- The cost of routine vet bills per year for checkups and shots
- The cost of special medical attention your dog needs on a regular basis
- Any unforeseen catastrophic events that might affect your dog, such as the need for an expensive operation
- The cost of grooming
- The cost of boarding or a pet sitter if the caregiver has to go out of town
- Any compensation you consider appropriate for the caregiver’s time
- The possible effects of inflation, if your pet is young and may live for several years
If you can’t find a suitable caretaker for your pet, another option is to make arrangements with a humane society, rescue group or sanctuary.
For example, for a $5,000 gift or bequest, the spcaLA’s Peace of Mind Re-Homing program ensures your dog will receive a complete medical exam, any required treatment and adoption into a loving home.
The ASPCA advises that you look into the type of care, facility and staff, and costs before making a decision.