For most of our clients, the family pets are just that – family. These pets are valued members of the extended family and, for some, the pets are their primary family. With such an important place in the family, it makes sense to want to provide for them if something unfortunate occurs, such as incapacity or death.
Often, the only planning clients have considered for their pets is a general conversation with family or friends, where a family member or friend agrees to take over the care of the pet if the unexpected occurs. While your family member or friend is well-intentioned, the reality when the unexpected occurs may prevent him or her from fulfilling their promise. He or she may have a health condition (or a member of their household may have a health condition such as allergies) that prevent them from living with your pet, or they may live in a location that will not allow them to have pets at home (e.g., no-pet apartment rules, or existing aggressive pets), or they cannot afford to take on another pet.
A pet trust is a legally enforceable alternative to that well-intentioned understanding you might have with your family and friends. A pet trust puts in place the people and the funds needed to ensure your pet (or pets) is well cared for during a period when you are unable to care for your pet yourself. A pet trust can be created during your lifetime or established upon your death. A pet trust created while you are living is funded by you and names you as the trustee of the trust. You have control over the funds in the trust and can use them as needed for your pet. You also name successor trustees to take over when you are incapacitated or after your death. You can name the successor trustee to take physical custody of the pet, or you can list other “caretakers” to work with the trustee to ensure proper care of your pet. You can add to the trust funds during your life and leave additional funds to the trust upon your death via your living trust or will. A testamentary pet trust is similar to the trust you create during your lifetime, but it is not funded and the trustee and caretaker you name do not care for your pet until your death.
Pet trusts are especially important for animals that may live a long time. Some birds have very long life spans. Also, pet trusts can be critical for animals that are very expensive to care for, such as horses. Both types of animals can be difficult to place, so proper advance planning is a must.
Under the California Probate Code, your pet trust will terminate when all your pets who were living at the time of your death have died. An advantage of a pet trust is the ability for you to choose who will receive any trust funds that remain when the trust terminates. A charity that benefits animals is a common choice, however, you have the right to name anyone you want to receive the balance remaining in the pet trust.
There are many aspects of a pet trust that you will want to discuss with your estate planning attorney, but a pet trust is a very useful tool to consider if you have any concerns regarding how your pet will be cared for after you are gone.