Eeeek. Now there’s an unpleasant thought. Oh, you hadn’t ever thought about it before? Well buck up cowboy because you know what? Shit happens. Car accidents, heart attacks, plane crashes. People die every day that weren’t planning on it. And guess what, if you aren’t prepared, it could very well be your beloved pet that ends up sitting in a cold shelter, alone, confused, and in mourning.
About a year ago a woman contacted one of the rescues that I volunteer with and asked for help finding a home for her dog. Her mother had passed away and no one in the family wanted the dog. It had already been living in boarding at a vet’s office for almost a month before she contacted us. I got in touch with her and told her we would begin working immediately to find a foster home. She called me later that day and told me the dog had passed away. They suspected heart failure. I believe it was a broken heart. And this happens every. single. day. because people assume surely someone will care for their pet if they pass away unexpectedly, rather than taking the time to put a plan in place. Here’s Rich with some advice on how best to prepare for the worst:
Today’s legal topic is one that I actually came across in law school; and not in a specialized animal law class, nor in my pro bono work with the Student Animal Legal Defense Fund, but actually in a class that many law students take in Florida: Gratuitous Transfers aka Wills, Trusts, & Estates. Today we’re talking about a bit morose, but necessary topic: providing for your pets in the event you die or become incapacitated before they do.
Many of us have friends that we know would take care of our animals for us if something untimely were to happen. While this may work in the short term, depending on the needs of your pet, it can become quite a hardship for someone to take on over the long term. Additionally, in the case of death a pet may become the subject of a property dispute among your friend and a family member that has always loved the dog, or worse one that may think that it can be sold for a profit.
A way to get around the possible property dispute is to include your dog in the property left by your will. Doing this ensures that there is a record of your wishes as to who is to take care of your dog at your passing. In the case of incapacity, a living will can include the same provisions and direct who is to take care of your dog. In the case of a will, there still exists the problem that just because you leave your dog with someone doesn’t ensure that they will continue to have the funds to take care of the dog for the life of the pet. Property from a will is distributed all at once, and what’s more is that it can take a long time, a year or more, before the probate process is completed.
The most complete way to make sure that your pet is taken care of is to establish a pet trust. Traditionally pet trusts used to fail because the pet was set up as the beneficiary. Courts would not enforce the trust because the beneficiary, the pet, could not sue the trustee in case that the trust was not being administered in the way that it is meant to be. However now all states in the US recognize pet trusts. Now, instead of making your pet the beneficiary, the creator of the trust designates the new keeper of the pet as the beneficiary of the trust. The next step is to make sure that you have a trust instrument drafted that details all of the care that your pet will need, and provides for other care and maintenance as the pet may require. The trust instrument can even instruct which vet the pet is to be taken to for the rest of its life.
Now in addition to naming the caretaker of the pet, i.e. the beneficiary of the trust, you will also have to name someone to administer the trust, this is the trustee. The trustee is charged with making sure that the letter and spirit of the trust instrument is followed, and that the beneficiary is taking care of your pet the way that you would want. The trustee disburses funds for the upkeep of the pet as they become due. This can be a personal friend, associate, or you can use a trust company to administer the trust. The last thing that you need to do is fund the trust. This can be done by depositing the money to fund the trust in an account with a bank or trust company just for this purpose, you can direct that funds be taken out of another account in your will at probate to fund the trust, or you can even name the trust as the beneficiary of a life insurance policy.
One last thing to consider is what you want done with the balance of the trust fund at the time when your pet passes on. You can designate that the balance go anywhere, so you can leave it for the caretaker of the trust as a “thank you” for caring for your pet after you are no longer able to, or you can pass it to another person just like a gift under your will, or you can designate that it pass along to a charity of your choice.
In addition to everything Rich just proposed, there is something I would like to add: sit down and write out all of your dogs routines, favorite treats, allergies, quirks, and anything else that can’t be solved with just having money set aside. I actually stumbled across a book that you could buy and fill in with every single detail imaginable about your pet so that if you did pass away untimely, the book could be given to the designated caregiver. For the life of me I can’t remember the name of it or find it now but I will keep searching and share it if I do. But think about it: no one knows your pet like you do and if you were to pass away he will already be a mess so the least you can do is make sure the future caregiver has all the tools necessary to make the transition as smooth as possible. I know this was a rather long and morose post today, but I think it is so important, and not something to be ignored because it is unpleasant. Now, go kiss your pet put a smile back on your face!