Responsible owners are thinking more and more about the future, and what should happen to their pets if something happens to the owner. A pet trust may be the best answer: Esther Roberts explains more.
Disclaimer: Nothing in this article is intended to be legal advice. No attorney-client relationship is created by reading and/or commenting on this post. If you are seeking legal advice, please contact an attorney directly.
As society evolves, our perspective on animal ownership is evolving as well. In the past, animals were typically regarding as “property” with a job to do: dogs guarded livestock, cats kept rodent populations under control, and horses pulled wagons or farm machinery. While some animals still fill these roles in modern times, the vast majority of animal ownership in the United States is now for “pet” purposes.
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, the human-animal bond is “a mutually beneficial and dynamic relationship between people and animals that… includes… emotional, psychological, and physical interactions of people, animals, and the environment.” Numerous studies indicate that humans live longer, happier, healthier lives when they have regular interaction with animals.
The pet industry in the United States is big business. According to the American Pet Products Association, last year consumers spent over sixty-six billion dollars on pet products. This included about $28 billion for food, $30 billion for supplies and veterinary care, and almost $6 billion dollars for grooming and boarding.
So, with all this puppy love, responsible owners are starting to ask, “what happens to my pet if something happens to me?” A pet trust may be the best answer to this question.
A pet trust empowers the pet’s owner to provide resources and directives for the pet’s care. It is advisable to have at least two persons involved in the administration of the pet trust, including a trustee who handles the financial resources dedicated to the pet’s care, and a caregiver who provides or manages the actual care of the animal.
This separation precludes any conflict of interest. The trustee can comply with all the fiduciary requirements of trust management and maintain the authority to approve all expenditures, review the care and condition of the pet, and, if necessary, replace the caregiver. The caregiver is free to focus on providing the best quality care for the pet.
It is wise to encourage the grantor to designate a primary and secondary trustee and a primary and secondary caregiver. In some instances, numerous caregivers must be specified. For example, a grantor may have three dogs and two cats. A family member is willing to serve as caregiver for the dogs but is allergic to cats, thus a second caregiver must be secured to care for the cats.
Pet trusts can be very specific, including such things as brand of food provided, level of care provided, and related matters. Here are a few examples.
The owner may specify almost anything within reason, such as number of times each day the animal is groomed, interacted with, given structured play time, and what other animals the pet may interact with:
- “Fluffy may go to any enclosed dog park but may not enter if a dog larger than 50 pounds is present.”
- “Mittens likes to share space with Stripes but should be kept separated from Tux at all times.”
- “So long as a licensed veterinarian has approved his overall health and fitness to continue being used as a riding horse, Charlie may be ridden by anyone approved by the caregiver, so long as the rider’s weight does not exceed 250 pounds.”
- “Sally is to be turned out daily for exercise but she is never to be ridden again by anyone for any purposes whatsoever.”
Pet trusts may also specify the types of enclosures appropriate to one’s pets:
- “Grace must be kept in no less than one acre of open field, with secure fencing appropriate for horses, with continuous access to clean water and a covered shelter. Barbed wire fencing and any fencing with openings in excess of 2” x 4” are expressly prohibited. No more than one other companion horse may reside in the same enclosure with Grace at any time.”
A pet trust may mandate health care as well, from how many times per year the pet must see a licensed veterinarian to specific procedures to be performed or prohibited. Some examples:
- “My grey parrot, Clyde, shall be taken to a licensed veterinarian at least four times per year to have his beak and talons filed.”
- “For all intact male (a.k.a. “colt”) horses in my herd, whether living at the time of my death or born thereafter to one of my mares: whenever a colt reaches the age of six months old, said colt is to be castrated as soon as possible by a licensed veterinarian using processes and procedures approved by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA).”
- “If Rex develops any injury or illness such that said injury or illness will likely result in death, as determined by two licensed veterinarians, Rex shall be humanely euthanized.”
For especially long-lived pets, such as tortoises and birds (some of whom have lifespans close to 100 years), some owners provide a short-term trust with an adoptive caregiver. The trust could be established for 12-24 months to make sure the caregiver and the pet form a strong bond. The trust then ends with the caregiver becoming the pet’s new owner.
Note: it is possible and appropriate to provide funds to pay the caregiver. Upon the death of the pet and, thus, the trust’s end, it may be wise to designate a preferred nonprofit entity to take the remaining trust funds as residual beneficiary, to avoid inadvertently providing a negative incentive to the caregiver to artificially shorten the life of the pet. Appropriate, regular monitoring of the pet is vital to assure the caregiver is providing adequate care for the pet.
Pet trusts allow humans to enjoy the benefits of pet ownership throughout the human’s lifetime and provide for care of the pet until the end of the pet’s life. Speak with your lawyer to learn more or seek a lawyer with specific experience in pet trusts.