By PEGGY HOYT, JD, MBA, BCS
Planning for four-legged loved ones (kids in fur coats) can be just as challenging as planning for two-legged loved ones (minor children). Clients typically ask, “Do I need a trust or a will?” The answer, of course, is, “It depends.”
Planning for pets presents a number of important considerations:
- How many pets does the client have?
- What types of pets are they?
- Do they have any unique care requirements (e.g., health concerns, unusual behaviors, etc.) that require special planning?
- Where does the client want the pets to live in the event of the client’s disability or death: at the pet parent’s home, with a friend or loved one, at a sanctuary?
- What financial resources will be provided to ensure the pets are adequately provided for?
- Who will be responsible for providing daily care?
- Is there a short-term pet caregiver who can be responsible for the pets at a moment’s notice until the long-term pet caregiver can be notified?
- Who will act as the long-term pet caregiver?
- Are there alternates for both the short-term and long-term pet caregivers?
- Who will be responsible for the oversight and administration of the assets left for the benefit of the pets?
These are just a few of the questions to be answered when creating a plan for loved pets. No two pet owners will have the same planning goals for their pets. I want my pets to stay in their own home with a pet caregiver who will move in and live on the premises. Nothing will change for my pets (except that I am no longer there). They will remain in the same safe environment they have always been used to. Others may be comfortable with a new forever home for their pets. Some will prefer a sanctuary environment, where their pets will live among many other pets. These are just a few of the issues and concerns that a pet parent must consider when creating a plan that ensures loved pets will be properly cared for when their pet parent is unable to do so as the result of natural disaster, disability, or death.
As with planning for minor children, the first step in planning for loved pets goes beyond the legal design of a pet estate plan. The first step is to identify the people or organizations (pet caregivers) that will have physical custody of the pets and provide them with both short-term and long-term (lifetime) care. Before any of the financial and legal considerations are addressed, the pet parent must feel comfortable with their pet’s caregiver. For some, finding the right pet caregiver can be a challenge.
A common first choice for a pet caregiver is family or friends. However, never assume they are willing to provide care without getting their positive agreement. There are too many situations where pet parents assumed their spouses, family, friends, or someone else would take on the pet care responsibility, only for the pet to end up in a shelter. It is estimated that 500,000 loved pets are euthanized in US shelters annually because pet parents did not have a solid plan for their loved pet’s care upon the pet parent’s incapacity or death.
Where can you turn if the pet parent does not identify anyone suitable for this important role? You could consider a pet sanctuary or perpetual care organization. Animal Care Trust USA, Inc., a nonprofit organization whose mission is to keep loved pets in loving homes, can fill this very important role; it provides loved pets with lifetime love and care, ongoing pet care oversight, and pet trustee services.
When choosing a pet caregiver, some important factors to consider are the following:
- Is this person responsible and committed to caring for the loved pets for the rest of their lives?
- Does the person already have their own pets?
- Will the new pets cause issues for the pet caregiver’s existing pets?
- What plans does the pet caregiver have for their own pets if something happens to the caregiver?
As mentioned above, never take for granted a person’s willingness to serve. As the commercial says, “Life happens fast.” Even the best-intentioned people can experience life changes that prevent them from fulfilling their responsibility. It is always good practice to have one or more back-up caregivers.
You will also want to consider how much money the pet parent should leave for the lifetime care of the loved pets. If the pets are staying at home, there will be the added expense of maintaining the property and the home, including taxes, insurance, maintenance, and utilities. In all cases, the pet parent will also want to consider compensation for the pet caregiver, along with sufficient resources to cover the cost of the pets’ lifetime care. How much money is enough? First, consider how much the pet parent spends now to care for the pets. Then, assume all the pets will live for an extraordinary amount of time. How will the pet be cared for at the end of its life, and what will be the final disposition? Will the pet be cremated or buried? Do the math, and then add a bit more for extra insurance in the event of a catastrophic chronic or life-threatening illness. Life insurance and retirement plans can be ideal assets for covering the costs of lifetime pet care.
There are numerous choices when planning for pets. Some pet parents choose to leave a fixed sum of money and their pet to a trusted pet caregiver. This choice is the riskiest because there is no way to ensure the funds will be used for the proper care of the pet. Others will want more certainty and may elect to create a trust for the lifetime care of their pets. A pet trust can be included in a last will, as part of a revocable living trust, or as a stand-alone instrument. Each choice has its pros and cons. I prefer stand-alone pet trusts for a number of reasons, not the least of which is immediate access to the resources necessary to care for the pets. As a result of personal planning experience, I no longer recommend testamentary pet trusts as part of a last will. The probate process can result in significant delays that can have disastrous results for loved pets.
Watch an extended interview with Peggy Hoyt and hear her thoughts on pet planning by clicking on the video to the left.
If you create a pet trust, selecting a trustee to manage the money for the benefit of the pets is a critical part of the pet plan. The trustee is responsible for making sure the terms of the pet trust are followed, ensuring the pets are receiving proper lifetime care, and that the money disbursed from the pet trust is being spent wisely. The trustee can be the same person as the pet caregiver, but this is not always a good idea because it can create a potential conflict of interest. The best choice is a professional trustee such as a certified public accountant, attorney, trust company, or charity qualified to act as trustee. Animal Care Trust USA, Inc. is the nation’s only nonprofit charity dedicated to acting as trustee for pet trusts.
Planning for loved pets does not mean merely considering what will happen when the pet parent dies. Clients will also want to have a plan for the pets if the pet parent becomes disabled or in the event of a natural disaster. What will happen to the pets if a pet parent ends up in a nursing home or an assisted living facility that does not accept pets? Who can provide for the pets if a natural disaster prevents pet parents from returning home or taking their pets with them in an evacuation? The role of short-term pet caregivers and pet sitters cannot be underestimated in these circumstances.
Pet parents should consider maintaining a notebook for their loved pets that contains all the important details, including, but not limited to, the pet’s name, description (including picture), age, health, special instructions for care, behavioral information, veterinary information, short-term pet caregivers, and long-term pet caregivers. If the information is needed in an emergency, the notebook will be available and up to date with critical information.