Estate Planning Issues Involving Pets, Pt. 1

Legally, pets are considered personal property of their owners, but for many people their pets mean so much more than any piece of furniture or inanimate object. They can be a person’s best friend, companion, and family. When a person begins the estate planning process the pets need to be addressed, as well.

For many people, the wellbeing of their pets is not a concern in the estate planning process, and unfortunately it can lead to the abandonment or euthanizing of the animal once the owner is gone. The only way to protect pets after the death of the owner is through legally binding estate planning documents. Allergies, conflicts with other pets, and exclusion of pets in rental agreements are the most common reasons why informal promises made by friends and family members to take care of a pet often fail.

The idea of legally enforceable documents that ensure a pet’s wellbeing in estate planning is a relatively new concept. Mockery in the press is also another reason why people do not seriously consider providing for pets in an estate plan, even if the remainder of the funds is set to go to an animal charity or other worthy endeavor. The most well-known example of this was Leona Helmsley, who left millions for her dog, Trouble, in a pet trust. Sadly, she was ill-advised when creating the trust, and her wishes were never fulfilled.

Legal Documents for Pet Protection

There are two main documents to consider when planning for the future of your pet – a will and a pet trust. Each document has its advantages and disadvantages, so the best option is to discuss with an estate planning attorney what the best choice for your estate should be.

Will: A will is valid after death and serves to distribute property. However, there are many pitfalls to relying solely on a will for a pet’s wellbeing. Instructions in a will are not enforceable, and disbursements cannot be made over time. In addition, the lag time between when a will is read and disbursement of property can also create issues. Changes to a will are also in a court’s discretion, so if a judge does not think that the pet deserves a disbursement the document can be changed. Finally, in states without pet trusts any disbursement to a pet in a will is considered “honorary.”

Pet Trust: A pet trust enlists a pet trustee who distributes funds for the pet’s wellbeing and ensures that it is being properly cared for per the previous owner’s instructions. This document has many advantages over a will. Pet trusts are valid during and after the owner’s life and a trust can preempt problems in the estate. Control over the disbursement of funds is also better under a pet trust. Pet trusts also allow for an investment trustee or trust protector for the proper investment and disbursement of funds. Finally, a pet trust allows for provisions about incapacity, and it can instruct that the pet goes with the owner to a nursing home or other care facility.

Part two of this article will discuss the various issues that need to be contemplated concerning the wellbeing of your pet during the estate planning process.

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