Americans like pets.
Over 60 percent of United States households have a pet. They are an integral part of most homes and in many cases quickly become a member of the family. Over the last 10 years, people have become more concerned about the fate of their pets. This has resulted in states passing laws that allow for the creation of pet trusts so estate planning attorneys can ensure people’s pets are taken care of post-death.
In 2009, a pet trust law went into effect in California which declares that pet trusts are enforceable in the state. Some commentators argue that the Legislature went too far because the law authorizes “any person interested in the welfare of the animal or any nonprofit charitable organization that has as its principal activity the care of animals” to enforce the pet trust. Furthermore, the law provides that the organization “may, upon reasonable request, inspect the animal, the premises where the animal is maintained, or the books and records of the trust.”
Regardless of whether a pet owner wants to provide for his pet in his will or trust, an owner may wish to complete a “pet profile” for each of his pets. A pet profile is essentially a questionnaire detailing information about the pet including: name; type of animal; age; weight; description; information concerning behavior; daily routine; and medical information, among other things.
At its most basic, a provision is inserted in a pet owner’s trust or will leaving the pet to a friend or relative. Years ago people did not think quite as much about the cost associated with caring for the pet. Today, most people understand that the cost can be fairly high and therefore will set aside money to be given to that person to be utilized on behalf of the pet. Sometimes that amount is held in trust.
Because the person selected may not want to or might be unable to undertake the task of caring for the pet, it is always helpful to have at least one back-up person listed. Generally, once the animal is given to the caregiver, no one monitors the caregiver unless the pet’s owner has provided a mechanism for that to occur.
Clients often struggle with how much money to leave for the care of their pet. Obviously, there are no rules. Rather there are factors to consider including how much is annually spent on behalf of the pet multiplied by the pet’s life expectancy. There are sources online that provide mechanisms for calculating the cost. The owner should be liberal in his/her thinking so the caregiver has enough money to care for the pet. A properly drafted trust will provide both enough money and a solution for the distribution of any remaining money.
In the event that money is being set aside to be used until the pet’s death (instead of a sum of money being given directly to the caregiver), it is important to make sure that the caregiver is honest. The caregiver may have a financial incentive to indicate that the animal is alive after it has passed. There are microchips that can be inserted in the pet so that the trustee can be certain that the money he is paying each month is for the care of the pet that was the intended recipient.
As a rule of thumb, people should always select a trustee that they trust. This is true for their monies that will be used on their behalf; and after they have passed, for the remainder of their estate that will be distributed to humans; utilized on behalf of humans; utilized on behalf of pets; and distributed to charity.
The estate planning attorney can assist in the selection of a trustee that is appropriate for the estate plan. Professional trustees, including corporate trustees, are sometimes utilized, especially in those situations where the client does not have anyone suitable to serve in the position. Often they are used as a back-up trustee, in case the named humans cannot serve.
Some people do not have anyone to care for their pet or pets and others may have one person to put in that position, but do not have a back-up. There are plenty of choices including contacting your local humane society as well as a veterinary school. A little bit of research will provide a number of other options including animal sanctuaries. Ideally, this should be done prior to finalizing the will or trust so that whatever is decided is incorporated into the document.
Finally, a pet owner may wish to let the caregiver know what should happen to the pet’s remains. Should they be buried or cremated. If buried, where? If cremated, where should the ashes be disbursed?
Just like the rest of estate planning, a little or a lot of planning can be done on behalf of pets. Many of the issues concerning pets are similar to those of humans, but there are some differences and for those people who have a pet who is an important part of their life, it is incumbent upon them to consider the issues and make the decisions that are right for them.
Michael Burstein, founding partner of Burstein Law, an estate planning law firm, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and (310) 391-1311.