What Happens to My Pet if Something Happens to Me?

More than three in five Americans (62%) have at least one pet in their household, and 95% of those pet owners consider their pets to be members of their family. Animals have become our best friends, our companions, and sometimes, the only family we have. They are dependent on us for their care and comfort. And, as their caregivers, we are responsible to make sure their care is uninterrupted if we become incapable of caring for them ourselves. Nearly half of all pet owners say they’ve bought birthday presents for their pets and 31% say they frequently or occasionally cook especially for their pets (The Harris Poll, July 16, 2015). Over one in ten pet owners have even taken out health or medical insurance policies on the pets they own. And yet, according to the Washington University School of Law, only between 12 and 27 percent of pet owners have provisions for their pets in their estate planning documents.

The Rich and Famous Plan For Their Pets, But Can I?

Hotel heiress Leona Helmsley, who died in 2007, made headlines with the news that her Maltese, Trouble, was her biggest heir. Helmsley left a $12 million trust fund for Trouble in a will, although improper planning significantly reduced the amount that the dog actually received. In 2002, Drew Barrymore placed her multi-million dollar home in trust for her Labrador mix, Flossie, as a reward after Flossie alerted Barrymore and her then-husband, Tom Green, of a house fire. Michael Jackson left his chimp, Bubbles, $1 million to ensure he would have a “secure long-term future,” although animal trainer Bob Dunner has said Bubbles will probably not ever receive a penny of his inheritance. And radio talk show host Oprah Winfrey has reportedly set aside $30 million for her beloved dogs.

The rich and famous provide for their pets, but what about the 99.9% of Americans who don’t have large estates and notoriety? The opportunity to plan for the future of one’s pet is a viable option for everyone, including the “ordinary” pet owner. You don’t have to be rich and famous to plan for your pet’s care in the event you become incapacitated or die. Most states now provide that a trust for the care of a designated domestic or pet animal is valid and legally enforceable (see Arizona Revised Statutes Section14-2907(B) and (C), for Arizona’s Pet Trust provision).

What Is A Pet Trust?

A Pet Trust is a specific kind of trust which provides for the care and maintenance of your animals in the event of your death or disability (whether due to sickness, injury or age, and etc.). Animals are legally considered to be your personal property and you may leave a pet to a beneficiary through a last will and testament. Because animals are property, however, you cannot leave property (cash or other assets) to your property (your pet). A will cannot enforce demands that the beneficiary must care for the pet, nor does a will provide for the care of your pet if you are incapacitated. Through a Pet Trust, you can set aside a specific amount of money to be managed by a person you designate (the “trustee”) for the benefit of the animals that survive you, the pet owner.

In the Pet Trust, you, as creator of the trust, are known as the “trustor”. The person you designate as trustee will hold property (cash, for example) “in trust” for the benefit of your pets. The trustee has a legal obligation to deliver the funds and the pet to your designated caregiver (often referred to as the Pet Guardian), who must use the funds solely for the benefit of your pet. Not only will the Trustee distribute the funds you have specifically directed to be used for the care of your pet, but he can ensure that the person caring for your pet follows your instructions.

What Is Included In A Pet Trust?

A Pet Trust document should direct appropriate veterinary care, a safe environment, a proper diet, and regular exercise for your pet. It can be very detailed so that you can, for example, specify your pet’s preference for certain foods or instruct that your pet be taken for daily walks or be seen by a veterinarian so many times during the year. It should also be specific regarding the diagnosis and treatment of any pain or disease which your pet may experience.

You will need to provide the following information for your Pet Trust:

  • Name and address of a trustee and successor trustee
  • Name and address of a caregiver and successor caregiver
  • Adequate identification of your pet to prevent fraud (through photos, microchips, DNA samples, or designating a class such as “all pets owned by me at the time of my incapacity or death”)
  • Describe in detail your pet’s standard of living and care (note whether certain pets need to be kept together because they were raised together or have otherwise bonded)
  • Name and address of your pet’s veterinarian, groomer, etc.
  • Require regular inspections of your pet by the Trustee
  • Determine the amount of funds needed to adequately cover the expenses for your pet’s care and specify how the funds should be distributed to the caregiver (do your homework to calculate what it costs to raise a domestic animal, based on the life expectancy of your animal)
  • Determine the amount of funds needed to adequately cover the expenses of administering the pet trust
  • Designate a remainder beneficiary in the event the funds in the pet trust are not exhausted (so the court doesn’t get involved in doing this)
  • Provide instructions for the final disposition of your pet

When Is A Pet Trust Valid?

A Pet Trust is valid during the pet owner’s lifetime and after death. Pet Trusts can ensure that the pet owner and pets remain together in the event the owner moves to a nursing home or other long-term care facility. The New York Times has reported that nursing home residents live longer when a pet is present, and efforts are made today to keep pet owners with their pets when possible.

Pet Trusts must terminate when there are no surviving animals that were alive and named in the trust document when the original owner died. Any money remaining is distributed according to the beneficiary designated in the trust document. Oftentimes, pet owners choose to leave a portion of the funds remaining after their pet’s death to the facilities that kept the owner and pet together, or to a shelter, sanctuary or rescue facility.

How Do I Create A Pet Trust?

It is advisable to set up your Arizona Pet Trust with the help of an Arizona attorney who specializes in estate planning. At Dana and Associates, we will provide you with a legally enforceable document which sets forth your directions regarding your pet. You can specify the kind of care you want your pet to have and be assured that your directions regarding your pet will be carried out.

Pet Trusts offer pet owners flexibility and peace of mind as they guarantee a secure future for beloved pets. Most pet owners shower the love on their pets during their lifetime; it makes sense to continue that love by ensuring the proper comfort and care of one’s pets beyond the incapacity or death of the pet owner.