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What to Know If You're Considering a Pet Trust in New York

Planning for the care of your pet when you're no longer able

Across the U.S., nearly 85 million households are home to a pet. For many, it’s a member of the family. “We take care of them while we’re alive, and then there’s always that concern of, ‘What would happen to my pet if something happens to me?’” says Laura E. Cowan, who runs her own estate planning practice in Midtown Manhattan.

Owners can relieve some of those anxieties by setting up a pet trust. In most states, pets are considered property, which means they can’t inherit money directly. But through a pet trust, money may be set aside for their care, with instructions provided to ensure that they are cared for according to the owner’s wishes. 

“It’s an arrangement where you get down in writing what the care and the maintenance of your animal is going to be in the event of your disability or death,” Cowan says. “Because it’s a legally enforceable arrangement, you can be assured as a pet owner that your directions are going to be followed.”

How do you know if a pet trust is right for you? “Generally, if you want to ensure care for your pets when you can’t care for them,” says Kera Reed, an estate planning attorney at Burner Law Group. Some examples: “You get sick, or you can no longer reside in your home, or at your death.” 

The grantor creates the trust, which can take effect either during their lifetime or when they pass away, and usually continues for the duration of the pet’s life. They can put however much money they deem appropriate into the trust, and name a trustee to access those funds. A designator caregiver is also named. “The trustee and the caregiver might be the same person,” Cowan says. “They don’t have to be.”

Reed says to make sure you have someone in each role who is able and willing. “You want to pre-arrange or pre-clear with whoever your intended recipient of the pet is,” she says. Depending on how much money is in the trust, you may want to designate a trust protector to monitor the trust.

Next, make sure you have a good understanding of your pet’s needs. “When I first meet with a potential client, I usually ask that they fill out a questionnaire before they come in,” Cowan says. “The sorts of things that I would ask would be: What kind of a pet is it? How many pets do you have? How long are they expected to live? How much do you generally spend on their care?” 

Consider the costs of vet visits, grooming, toys, food, medicine, and boarding or pet sitting, Reed adds. She suggests figuring out the annual cost of your pet, then multiplying it by the pet’s life expectancy to determine how much money your caretaker will need. You may also want to consider including compensation for your intended caretaker beyond simple reimbursement. 

You can include things like what kind of food your pet should be fed, walking instructions for their favorite park. “Basically, whatever you do with your pet on a daily basis that you would want carried out in the event of your own incapacity or death, that’s what you should include in your pet trust,” Cowan says. “And there’s really no right or wrong. This is your chance to give instructions for how you want your pet to be taken care of.

Finally, when deciding how much money to put in the trust, “you’re better off overfunding it and then having a remainder [beneficiary] if you have the means to do that,” Reed says. Anything left over when the pet dies can be distributed to a person, a local animal shelter, or another recipient.

Setting up a pet trust isn’t particularly complicated, but it’s still worth consulting an attorney to ensure that your wishes are carried out correctly. “You want to have these conversations about the details,” Reed adds. “Just leaving money in a pet trust doesn’t do the job."

For more information on this area of law, see our overview of trusts and estate planning.

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