A cat and dog who could benefit from a pet trustYour pets are members of your family, but many people who come to meet with me don't know that they can include their pets in their estate planning documents. If they have heard of Pet Trusts, they assume it's just made for celebrities and people with a ton of money. But in fact, a lot of people can benefit from a Pet Trust and can leave a legacy for their beloved animals behind.

While you may think of long and complex documents when you hear the word "Trust," setting up a pet trust doesn't have to be an extremely complicated process. In fact, you can do most of the homework on your own and have a simple structure in place for your pets when you're gone. From there, it's simply a matter of incorporating these plans into your estate planning documents and then you can rest easy knowing that your pet is taken care of in case something happens to you.

What is a Pet Trust?

A Pet Trust is simply an arrangement for your pet after you're gone. It will provide money for their care, it will provide a caregiver and you can actually specify where the pet will be located. When you see a Pet Trust in the news with people like Leona Helmsley (the more extravagant versions), you're seeing a trust that is buying the pet a house, or more usually, the pet gets to stay in your house until the pets died, and then the house is sold, and then the funds go somewhere else.

What's much more common is people that set up a basic Pet Trust as part of their overall trust, with provisions to provide for their beloved pets. I had a cat that lived for 20 years and I've had clients who have 25-year-old cats, and they want to make sure that their cat is taken care of and they are leaving behind a legacy for their pet. What happens is that Pet Trust says when the pet dies, the money can either go to a charity or go to somewhere else that you designate or someone else that you designate.

The Pet Trust itself doesn't have to be a separate long document, it can be built into your regular Revocable Living Trust. You can also have a pet provision in your will if you want to do a Pet Trust so it doesn't have to be overly complicated.

Where Should My Pet Go?

One of the most important decisions you'll need to make for your Pet Trust is where your pets will go to live and how will you support their lifestyle. It is analogous to your guardianship and trustee provisions for your children in your estate plan. It doesn't have to be complicated, and you can really choose what happens in case something happens to you.

Something you want to look into is whether there are shelters near you, especially "No Kill" shelters. Or are there other shelters that appeal to your pet that you could actually have your pet go to after you're gone? I've had clients designate shelters in other states where literally the pet would be flown from one city to another to live out their lives in one of these shelters.

If you're going to use a shelter, you need to know that they are going to charge you a fee. Many times, the shelter or the organization will require you to also leave a bequest in your documents that leave a certain sum of money to the shelter as well to assist them in caring for your pet. If it's a cat or a dog, you know about the amount of money that is needed for their care. When you get to bigger animals, especially like with horses, leaving them in a shelter or sanctuary can be extremely expensive. You can be looking at a million dollars or more because it takes a lot of money to care for a horse.

While you may think you just want to do a Pet Trust, that it's easy, it's something to investigate. But make sure to research how much is going to be involved. Look at what you would expect to spend on your pet, and look at your yearly expenses, so you can figure out how much money you would want to leave behind for the caregiver for your pets. Now, even though anybody who's a pet lover probably wants a Pet Trust, the fact is it may not be for everybody.

Next Steps

A Pet Trust isn't something that most people will try to do themselves, so if you're ready to get one created for your pets, or if you just have questions you'd like to get answered so you can see if it's right for you, let's set up a Legal Strategy Session. It's not for everybody, but for many people, a simple Pet Trust is a great way to leave a legacy for those beloved friends in our house.

Andrew Ayers
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I work with business and estate planning clients to craft legal solutions to protect their legacies.
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