Trusts are a common way to provide for a spouse, children or other family members after you’re gone, and they even can be used for family members that have fur, fins or feathers.
Though less widespread than trusts drafted for human beneficiaries, pet trusts serve many of the same functions. They can provide legal instructions and protections for the care and placement of animals when an owner dies or becomes incapacitated.
It’s hard to estimate how many people have trusts to benefit pets, though probably not many, as the concept is fairly new. “It’s a matter of getting people to know that you can and should include pets in estate planning,” said Lisa Kiser, an attorney in Mesa who drafts trusts for pets.
Benefits of having a trust
To understand why a pet trust might make sense, it helps to review a few general basics about trusts. Among their main uses, trusts allow for assets to be transferred to others without going through the probate process. They also can provide ongoing financial support for beneficiaries who might squander a lump sum, including children or people with special needs.
One popular variety, revocable living trusts, can be changed, dissolved or rewritten while you’re still alive and competent. These trusts often are packaged with complementary documents such as a pour-over will (to handle assets that weren’t titled into the trust) and financial and health-care powers of attorney, which empower others to act on your behalf in case of incapacity. Living trusts also can minimize estate taxes, though only the wealthiest Americans are subject to this tax.
Pet trusts focus around some of the same concepts. The key aim is to name a trusted person or organization to provide ongoing care for your animals, while providing funds to do so. Many people instead make informal arrangements, asking friends or relatives to take in their animals. But without a trust or other legal document, there’s no assurance your wishes will be fulfilled.
Similarly, an owner could spell out how much medical care should be given to a pet, especially an older one, and when euthanasia might become the preferred option, said Kiser, who works with Lost Our Home. Trusts can plan for those and other contingencies. “At least you would have some control over what happens to your pet,” she said.
You also could specify many other details, such as that your cat be fed grain-free kibble or that your dog be exercised regularly at dog parks. A key decision is naming the right trustee — the person or organization entrusted with carrying out your wishes.
How much will it cost?
The costs to have an attorney draft a trust vary and are somewhat negotiable. As a general guide, living-trust packages for human beneficiaries typically start around $1,000 but can rise to several thousand dollars or more, depending on the attorney, the complexities and the assets involved. Pet trusts, which are simpler, should cost less. If you already have a living trust, you might be able to include an addendum rather than draft a separate pet trust.
As with trusts for humans, pet trusts can involve an investment-management component, especially if several animals are involved or they are long-lived, as with some birds. Kiser suggests funding a pet trust with at least $10,000. Any money left after the animal dies can be donated to a non-profit group.
If you don’t establish a pet trust, consider spelling out your pet-care wishes in a letter given to a trusted relative or friend, though these instructions wouldn’t be legally binding, wrote Brad Wiewel, a Texas estate-planning attorney, in a commentary. While you might think of your pets as family, they’re considered property in the eyes of the law, he noted.
Similarly, you could leave funds with a friend or family member, with care instructions. But without a trust, “Nothing will prevent (the person) from using the money for some other purpose and/or giving your pets away,” he wrote.
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