How Will I Care For My Pets If I Die Before They Do?

Dear Ms. Allison: My grandma is 98 years old and has a very spoiled, much loved dog. Fuzz is the 6-year old puppy of Grandma’s favorite poodle, Peaches, which lived to be 17 years old. She figures Fuzz will outlive her and she may be right. She wants me to take the dog, but my autistic son is allergic. Also, he is often startled by sudden noises or movements like a small dog tends to make. That causes hours of distress for our household. We don’t want Fuzz to go to a shelter, but don’t have time to find a family for him and Grandma really doesn’t want to give him up while she’s living. A friend reminded me that Leona Helmsley left a trust to pay people to take care of her pets. Is this a real thing? Do regular people do it? How much money does it take? D. F. near Tulsa

Dear D.F.:

Yes, it’s a real thing. Some people don’t make any formal plans about caring for their pets if they die, or become ill or incapacitated. Some folks figure that a tenderhearted family member or neighbor will adopt Fluffy. Others assume that their own executor or trustee will find a good home for Spot. Several people find that dear Slime is a bit more difficult to accommodate, especially if he requires special food, handling, security, or accommodations, so he may wind up in a zoo. Hard as it is to believe, a few don’t think of “just in case” for their pets at all. You have several options to care for Tip and Mitten if they outlive you and a Pet Trust is one.

The fact is that you may consider your pets to be “family” and “fur (fin, feather or scale) babies”, but the law has deemed them your tangible personal property like your furniture, for example. Thus, they are part of your estate. Whomever you have left your tangible personal property to also inherits your pet – unless you make other arrangements.

There are laws against abandoning pets in Oklahoma (and most other states) and the animal shelters are “maxed out” anyhow. It sounds cold-hearted, but every year hundreds of pets of deceased owners are euthanized, simply because no plan was made for them or they were planned for informally and that plan fell through.

A trust is one way to handle the transfer of pet care for a variety of reasons. Depending on how you set it up, you can avoid court processes, and there’s less delay for transferring ownership, the caregiving duties, or the resources to provide for the care.

You must fund the trust, however. So that does require figuring out if you have the financial means to leave money for that specific purpose. Here again, a trust is just a tool. You cannot leave an inheritance to an animal. If you leave money for the pet to your proposed caretaker, there’s no guarantee it would be used for the animal’s care.

So, let’s take a look at what it takes to set up a Pet Trust for Fuzz.

Caregiver. Who is willing and responsible enough to care for your pet every day? This is a serious 24/7/365 undertaking for as long as the animal lives. It’s not a short-term pet-sitting job, like when an owner goes on vacation. It is more like a Guardian. The trustee and the caregiver do not have to be the same person. If the animal is large or very active, the designated caregiver should have the physical stamina necessary. If the pet is anxious, ill or emotional, the caregiver should have a good amount of patience and nurturing ability. If it’s an exotic pet or working (even retired) animal (guide dog, guard dog, police dog, support animal) think about a person with the capacity for giving the mental and physical stimulation needed for the pet long-term. Cat people, Dog people, Reptilian people are different. Choose a match for your pet, not a momentary interest. You want to also designate a backup caregiver in case something prevents your first choice from fulfilling the commitment.

Trustee. You’ll need someone willing to do the administrative management of the trust. This person is an important consideration because this is the individual who must make the money last and use it for the correct purposes. You will need to name a backup trustee or design a way to choose a successor.

The Enforcer. Someone also needs to have oversight. This job is to make sure that all is going as it should between the caretaker and the trustee. The person will go into court to enforce the trust if necessary.

Care Instructions. Pets often grieve the loss of their owners. As with people, continuing certain daily routines and normalcy can help keep the loss from turning into depression. You may want to write out a detailed plan or “day in the life” outline of what is normal for the animal, what and when it eats, toileting, treat rules, walking / training / play time, preferred pet parks or friends, quirks, likes and dislikes, crating or carrier issues and more. The caregiver will appreciate knowing what to expect, and how to deal with or prevent behavioral reactions. Important also, is a list of preferred providers and vendors – veterinarian, groomer, trainer, pet sitter, where to buy those multi-colored, peanut butter-flavored treat bones, canned kitten milk, or live prey. Having a routine in the first few weeks of transition will ease the situation for both pet and caretaker, reduce stress and give the relationship a well-grounded start.

Funds. Figure out your pet’s expected lifespan (your veterinarian and the internet are good resources for this) and then add up all pet-care costs for one year. On average, how much do you spend for veterinary care, shots and medications, food, toys, leads/leashes, etc. Does your pet require grooming? How often? (You said Fuzz was a poodle, so that’s probably a monthly expense, at least.) Think of a big emergency pet expense you’ve had to pay – accident / injury / court costs for a bite – and add extra money for unexpected expenses. Calculate the annual expenses and multiply by the number of years left of the pet’s anticipated life expectancy. (If Fuzz is a miniature or toy, he could live 14, 17, even 20 years. So, if he’s 6 now, he could live 14 more years.) That calculation gives you the budget for lifetime care. For example: If it costs $2500 a year for feed, veterinary and other care for Fuzz, you may need to set aside as much as $35,000 for the pet and additional moneys to pay for administrative costs, taxes and the like! (Yes, you did see that. Your Trust will have to file tax returns.)

You may want to buy a life insurance policy to fund the Pet Trust on your death. Also, figure out what you want done with the money if the pet does not live long enough to use up all the funds you set aside. Do you want to donate to a shelter, rescue effort, or nature conservancy or project? These can all be established in your Pet Trust instructions.

Legalities. It is the law in all 50 states, so document your decisions, designations, instructions, and funding sources in a legally-binding Pet Trust. Since state laws vary, have the Trust set up by an experienced estate planning attorney, licensed in the state where you and your pet live. Your Pet Trust can assure that your pet family will live securely, with necessary care and comforts if they outlive you. Finally, once the legal plan is executed, fund it. Without resources, you leave nothing for the caregiver to provide the life you planned for your pet.

You can see that there is a lot to do to create and execute a Pet Trust. And. there is a cost to it. Be aware too, that there are other options and you should discuss them with your attorney. For instance, there are charities that will take your cats and dogs. One of my favorites is the Cohn Pet Care Facility at Oklahoma State University. This route saves you the difficulty of selecting caregivers, trustees and such; however, it is no less expensive than setting up a Pet Trust, generally speaking.

A Pet Trust is just one way to look after the long-range benefit of your much-loved pet. It is always a good idea to consider your pet when you go to plan your estate.

Gale Allison, Attorney

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