Caring For Your Pet After You Die

Tips for setting up a pet trust

According to Arizona law, pets are personal property. But to many of the people who own them, they’re as dear as any family member. But how do you provide for a beloved pet after you die? Include them in your estate plan.

“People are living longer and many older people are alone,” notes Chester B. McLaughlin, an estate planning attorney in Prescott. “And so their pets become incredibly important to them. … The pets become their children. So if you had children, would you just not even deal with them in your will or your trust and say nothing about them? Of course not.”

Setting up a pet trust is one way Arizona residents can ensure their pets continue to receive the same standard of care with their next owner. There are two ways of setting up a pet trust. The first is to give your pet to someone outright and establish a trust with money to be used for the pet’s care. The other option is to assign ownership of the pet to the trust itself. A pet trust not only funds the pet’s care but also can specify conditions, such as “the trustee shall evaluate these factors before deciding to put [the pet] down,” or “the trustee shall not expend more than X amount of dollars on veterinary care,” McLaughlin says. “You can put whatever qualifications or distribution provisions that you want in there,” he adds.

Advantages of a Pet Trust

Most pet owners simply leave their pets to someone else when they die, McLaughlin says, and that’s certainly a viable option—one he often discusses with his own clients. But a pet trust can offer a little more security, both for the person establishing the trust and for those left to care for the pet. Here’s a look at some reasons a pet trust can be beneficial:

  1. Peace of mind: If a pet is not designated in a trust or a will, it has a higher chance of ending up in a shelter, “because maybe the trustee or the personal representative of the will doesn’t really care about the pet,” McLaughlin says. Establishing a pet trust or including your pet in your will ensures that those handling your estate know your wishes for your pet.
  2. Financial impact: Pets can be expensive, and simply giving your pet to another person can be a financial burden on them. “[That person] may not be willing to designate the same amount of funds to the pet’s care that you would,” McLaughlin says. With a pet trust, you can set aside a predetermined amount of money that can be used to cover your pet’s costs without impacting someone else’s bottom line.
  3. Division of responsibility: The person who is best equipped to provide a good home for your pet might not be so well equipped to manage a large sum of money. With a pet trust, the trustee and the new pet owner can be two different people—or one person can be designated in both roles.
  4. Accountability: Some pet owners may choose to provide for their pets’ care by gifting a sum of money to the new owner. However, the recipient of the gift could choose to spend the money one something other than your pet. With a pet trust, “that money is set separately aside to be designated for that sole purpose,” McLaughlin says. “And if the trustee does not use the money for that purpose and takes the money, then they’ve breached their fiduciary responsibility under the trust, and it would be actionable.”
  5. Standard of care: A pet trust can include guidelines for the pet’s care. For example, McLaughlin recalls one client who included specific dietary standards and a grooming schedule for his dog. “That way, you know your [pet] is going to be taken care of exactly the way you want them to be taken care of,” he says.

Considerations when Setting up a Pet Trust

If you think a pet trust might be right for you, there are a few things to consider. First is who should take care of your pet. “It’s really, really important to pick the right person,” McLaughlin says. “In my trust, I’ve picked people who know the dog and have clearly expressed affection towards the dog.” It’s advisable to talk to that person first and make sure they are willing to take care of your pet.

Second, consider how much money your pet trust will need to adequately care for the animal. How much you set aside will depend on things like the pet’s life expectancy, medical needs and any other expenses.

Third, be as specific as possible. “The pets can’t speak for themselves as to what their needs are and what their wants are,” McLaughlin says. “If you don’t want to get that detailed [in the trust document], you can write it on a separate letter of wishes or something like that.”

If setting up a pet trust sounds like the right option for you, an experienced estate planning attorney can help.

For more information on related areas of law, see our overview articles on estate planning, trusts and wills.

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