A "trust" is an instrument where legal title and beneficial ownership are split. A "pet trust" is a type of trust designed for the care of your pets. Creating a pet trust gives you peace of mind with respect to your animals knowing that they will be properly cared for after your death. A pet trust allows you to provide for your animals when you are no longer able to do so and controls how they will benefit from your estate.
Why is estate planning for your pets important? Often when a pet owner dies, his or her animals end up with a friend or relative, but there is no certainty of this and your pets could even end up in a shelter. In addition, there is a very limited legally enforceable standard of care that must be provided for pets after their owner dies. Therefore, it is essential to make formal arrangements designating who becomes the caregiver of your pets and providing a sum of money to the caregiver to cover your pets' expenses at the standard of care that you desire for them. A well-drafted pet trust will save your human beneficiaries -- and the caregivers of your pets -- time, money and stress while ensuring that your animals continue to be properly cared for in the future.
Without a legal document establishing a pet trust, state intestacy laws supply default rules for who inherits an estate. While you may view your pets as beloved family members, state intestacy laws view all animals as personal property and therefore they are treated no differently than jewelry or automobiles. Under state intestacy laws you have no control over who becomes the caregiver for your pets.
Setting up a pet trust allows you to avoid the risks associated with state intestacy laws. There are two main categories of pet trusts: (1) a "testamentary pet trust", which is created by a will, and (2) an "inter vivos trust", which is created while you are still alive.
Testamentary Pet Trusts:
By providing for your pets in your will, you can designate who becomes the caregiver of your pets and leave a sum of money to cover your pets' expenses. This is known as a testamentary pet trust. In states like Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia, Pet Trust Statutes ensure that the funds you have left in your will shall be used specifically for the care of your pets. By naming your pets and leaving a sum of money in your will in such states, you have created a "Statutory Pet Trust". In states with no Pet Trust Statutes, if you name your pet as a beneficiary and leave a sum of money in your will, the court does not have to honor your wishes in such states. If the court chooses to honor your wishes, the trust is known as an "Honorary Pet Trust".
However, naming a caregiver and providing funds in your will does not provide your pets' caregiver with instructions or set a standard of care for your pets. In addition, a will is only effective after your death. Where will your pets be if you are ill or unable to care for your pets prior to passing? Finally, a court is also able to reduce the amount of funds left to your pets and redistribute them if it finds the amount to be frivolous or unreasonable for the care of your pets.
Inter Vivos Pet Trusts:
As opposed to a testamentary pet trust, an inter vivos pet trust is created while you are still alive to care for your pets. After created an inter vivos pet trust, you can transfer cash into the trust for the immediate care of your pets. You can name yourself as the trustee of the trust and designate alternate trustees in case you and/or one of your alternates become ill, incapacitated or unwilling to act as trustee.
You can also name yourself as your pets' caregiver and designate alternates in case you and/or one of your alternates become ill, incapacitated or unwilling to act as caregiver.
In an inter vivos pet trust, you should consider providing the name of a "protector" who will periodically check with your trustee and caregiver to make sure that your pets are being taken care of according to your wishes. You should also include a detailed description of your pets in the trust document and consider having your pets micro-chipped for identification purposes. Finally, be sure to include a detailed instructions for your caregiver, including your pets' favorite foods, how often your pets should see the veterinarian and how your pets should be socialized with other animals and exercised.
Temporary and/or Emergency Caregivers for Your Pets:
In addition to creating a pet trust, you may want to consider designating temporary and/or emergency caregivers for your pets. Accidents and delays happen and it is beneficial to have at least two people who are willing to step in for you to care for your pets in such situations. Each of these people should have a key to your home, care instructions for your pets and contact information for your veterinarian.