Planning Ahead for Fido and Fluffy

Do you think of your pets as property or members of the family? What would happen to your pets if you suddenly became unable to care for them, or even make decisions about their care? Many individuals turn to trusted family members and friends for assurance that Fido and Fluffy will be cared for in the future. Unfortunately, these promises often cannot be kept due to a variety of reasons such as the living arrangements, health, or financial considerations of the individual entrusted with “the promise.”

Think again if you believe that your pet is provided for because it is mentioned in your will. A will specifies what is to be done with your property after your death. Few people realize that if you become incapacitated for a period of time prior to death, your pet will have no protection. You can give the pet to someone, but that person is not legally obligated to care for the animal according to your wishes. Another consideration is the care of your pet between the time that your will is probated and property is disbursed. Are you leaving funds to provide for your pet’s care? If so, the funds will be disbursed in one lump sum, so you need to be sure that the individual will manage the money over the lifetime of your pet. Although these downfalls of a will are significant, you can still provide general direction concerning your pet in your will. Additional steps are needed, however, to ensure that your wishes concerning your pet’s care will be followed.

The document that will provide the desired protection for your pet is called a pet trust. A pet trust is valid during the owner’s life as well as after death. If you become incapacitated, and have indicated in the pet trust that your pet should remain with you, a move to a care facility will include your pet, assuming the residence you have chosen allows pets. A pet trust can control how and when funds are disbursed to care for the pet. In addition, an investment trustee can be appointed to manage the available funds and to seek to grow the principal. Thus, you can make sure that financially, money is available over the lifetime of your pet to pay for care. Is there a possibility that your estate could be contested by someone who believes that money should go to people and not animals? A pet trust will aid in solving this issue. The benefits of a pet trust are obvious. So how is a pet trust instituted?

A pet trust is drafted by an attorney, and addresses a variety of considerations concerning the pet. Factors to consider include:
Who is the pet’s owner? If you are a couple, and the marriage ends in divorce or separation, keep in mind that pets do not have the same legal protection that children receive. Separation from a pet, such as during a natural disaster, can have unpleasant consequences if ownership is not clearly spelled out. Details of ownership can aid in reclaiming your pet after a temporary separation. Include a detailed description of the pet(s), and instructions for care, such as whether or not pets should be kept together if there is more than one.

Who will care for the pet? The individual or organization designated to care for the pet is called the pet guardian. The pet guardian must follow the pet owner’s instructions. If an organization is appointed as guardian, directions about adoption of the animal should be included in the trust document. A successor pet guardian should also be named in case the first guardian is unwilling or unable to provide care. If a shelter is named as guardian, a fee may be required, so keep this fact in mind when setting aside funds for care.

How much funding is required? Funding is actually optional, although it is recommended. Factors to keep in mind when deciding how much money to leave for care are: the number and type of pets, how long the pets are expected to live, whether or not the pet guardian will receive compensation, and the possible need for an emergency fund. Pets do become more expensive as they age. The individual or organization that is named as guardian can also be responsible for the funds, but appointing two different people or organizations will add an extra layer of protection for your pet. Be sure to indicate what should be done with the remaining funds after your pet passes away. Funds can be distributed to individuals or organizations/charities, and the amount should be specified in percentages, since the exact amount remaining will not be known when the trust is written.

Caring for pets is not a simple task, as evidenced by the amount of detail needed in a pet trust. Although it is sad to think of leaving pets behind, when proper arrangements for their care are not made beforehand, the results can be heartbreaking. Keystone Elder Law can help you prevent a potential disaster, and give you peace of mind that your beloved “member of the family” will be taken care of, no matter what happens.

Karen Kaslow, RN, BSN
Elder Care Coordinator
Keystone Elder Law