Since my youngest child learned how to independently use the rest room, my oldest child has been pestering me non-stop to get the family a dog. My darling tweener, in her most sarcastic and whiny tone (parents especially know how this hits shrill level 10), she reminds me “you promised.” Well, I confess, I did promise her that once the little ones were potty trained, I would consider adding a dog to our family. What’s my objection? Simple – how many more things should be on my wife’s and my to-do list? Even so, having a family mascot can do wonders for a family’s well-being.
When scrolling through your social media feeds, you are probably bombarded by videos and pictures of puppies, kitties, birds, and other animals. Instagram is full of accounts displaying pets for everyone to see. These pictures bring an immediate smile and the fuzzy feeling to anyone that sees them. Did you know that videos of golden retriever puppies running in the snow are some of the most watched and shared videos?
Well, Americans continue to display close relationships with their furry family. According to the Harris Poll 95% of pet owners consider their pets to be members of their family. Pets like cats and dogs often become part of the family or more often than not, like your children. The therapeutic effect of animal companionship is well-documented. So why would you plan for your loved ones and exclude your furry loved ones?
A complete estate plan will include core documents such as revocable trusts or a will; and should also have powers of attorney, and health care directives to protect your family in case of your incapacitation or death. The finished estate plan will have all of the elements properly funded and documented.2 Often, a supposed “complete” estate plan will forget to include the client’s furry family, so their beloved pets are left out of the estate plan.
On the flip side, some people choose to leave their entire estate to their pets. One of the most famous instances of this was when real estate heiress Leona Helmsley left approximately $12,000,000 to her dog, “Trouble”3. The dog’s caretaker received $100,000 to provide for Trouble’s living expenses. Apparently, Trouble was also chauffeured from place to place in a stretch limousine. Hopefully, Trouble had some notion of how little of her namesake she suffered in life.
While the Helmsley/Trouble scenario almost seems a bit far-fetched, Pet Trusts allow you to provide care and maintenance of your pet throughout its lifetime in the case of your incapacitation or death. You have crossed your t’s and dotted your i’s but you forgot about Spot.4 What happens to him when you can’t be there anymore?
Many pet owners assume that friends and family will take care of their beloved furry children in case of the owner’s incapacitation or death. There may be verbal promises between you and your neighbor or family member. But, what happens when they can no longer take care of your pet because Fido and their Boxer named Ben are incompatible and don’t get along? Chances are, your animal will be out the door. Cost of care is another complicating factor. If you do not commit funds for your pet’s care, even your well-meaning friend might not have enough money to cover any expenses that Fido will incur.
Some pet owners may not want to devote the resources necessary to efficiently and accurately create documents that provide for their pet’s welfare. Even families that love their furry family may not want to pay for professional help in drafting these documents for their pets. There are a variety of reasons such as your life will most likely exceed that of your beloved pet or maybe you don’t want to place a burden on the caretaker. But, not creating a plan for your pet not only leaves a bigger burden for whomever ends up with the animal, but it also burdens Fido. Worse if your pet is orphaned after your death, they more likely to be left in shelters, and possibly euthanized, if their parents haven’t made a plan for them.
So what can you do for your furry child?
Fortunately for you, Florida is among the states that recognize the validity of trusts designed specifically for pets. A Pet Trust functions no differently than a regular trust. The Pet Trust is created, funded with assets used to take care of your pet during its lifetime, and you designate an individual or entity to serve as trustee to administer the funds based on the terms stated in the trust. The main characters in a Pet Trust are the Grantor (trust creator and pet owner), trustee (the person who will carry out the Grantor’s wishes), the caretaker (the person who will actually take possession of the pets), and the Pet Protector.5 The Pet Trust is versatile and can be as detailed as you want it to be such as specifying which brand of food you want for your pet, which groomer to use, and even the veterinarian of your choice. In Florida, the trustee is responsible for executing the plan and may also take possession of the pet or pets. The trustee then has the responsibility to ensure that the pet’s expenses are paid for from the trust’s fund.
The caregiver serves the same function that a guardian would for dependent children, the importance of designating an alternate trustee, if the primary trustee or caregiver can no longer take care of your pet, cannot be more strongly stressed. Splitting the responsibility of physically caring for your pet and financially caring is usually a wise move. In that situation, each of the caregivers can focus on their responsibilities.
Unlike many other trusts, Pet Trust terminates on the death of the beneficiary, or if the Pet Trust was created to provide care for multiple pets alive during your lifetime, the Pet Trust is terminated on the death of the last surviving pet. Pet Trust planning must consider the next step. There is no such thing as a dynastic Pet Trust. Any left-over funds could then transfer to an existing Trust or even be left to a charity of your choice.
Here are some questions to think about when creating a Pet Trust:
- Who should act as Trustee?
The appointed person will be responsible for your pet and their well-being. When money is involved, it is easy to how problems can arise. There have been discussions about how Trustees have gone to the length of replacing a pet with a look-alike in order to keep the money rolling in. Remember that once the pet passes the Trust is terminated. While this story may seem out of this world, it has happened and will continue to happen so it is especially important that a lot of thought is placed on the decision of choosing a Trustee.
- Who should have physical possession of the pet?
Once again, take some time to asses who is the best person for this job. Your pet may have special needs or maybe your pet doesn’t get along with other pets. In order to make the best possible decision, look at different factors and see which person you trust for this important job.
- Should there be a pet protector?
A pet protector is an unrelated party who may enforce the trust terms for the pet’s welfare. While the trustee has the ability to serve as pet protector, it might be a good option to separate the responsibilities. Having the dual role of pet protector and trustee can incentivize the trustee to keep the pet alive, even if the pet is suffering, in order to keep receiving a trustee fee and possibly a pet protector fee.
- Who is the remainder beneficiary?
Any remaining assets in the trust can be transferred in another trust or can be given to charity. Think about what you would want to be done with your remaining assets.
Pets come in all different varieties. On the west side of Broward County, there are many farms, stables, and other areas of free range pasture. From the domestic to the exotic, our pets are as unique as their names. These pets are not able to care for themselves or seek medical treatment as our adult children are expected to do. A Pet Trust helps solve this problem.
At Yolofsky Law we want you to be a hero to your family – and of course, that includes your pets. If you would like to learn more visit us at www.yolofskylaw.com
 Results of the Harris Poll® of 2,205 US adults, of whom 1,323 have at least one pet, surveyed online between May 20 and 26, 2015.
2 For more information on avoiding a major estate planning mistake read Mistake Avoidance 101
3 The aptly named pooch had her inheritance reduced to about $2M by a judge, but really, what dog could down $2M, even $1M worth of treats?
4 If some translations are correct, Spot was also the name of the feared three-headed dog guarding the entrance to Hades of Greek mythology. (a.k.a. “Cerberus”)
5 For more information on the basics of a trust-based estate plan, please review our report “What is an estate plan?”