Leona Helmsley wanted to make sure someone cared for her pet after her death. She left $12 million to her dog, Trouble, in her estate plan. If it seems excessive, the probate court agreed. They reduced it to $2 million.
Most people with pets don’t have $2 million to bequest to them. Most people simply want to know that their pet will be cared for appropriately, by someone who loves them, and that their care will not be a financial burden on that caregiver.
Thankfully, all 50 states and the District of Columbia have statutes that allow for people to give money and designate a caregiver for their pets.
What Happens if I Die Without a Pet Trust?
In Massachusetts, pets are considered property. As such, you can leave them to a particular person in your Will. Any provisions for their care or maintenance, however, are not enforceable. Once the pet is given to the named beneficiary, the beneficiary can do what they want.
If there is someone in your life would love and care for your pet as you would, then establishing a pet trust is not necessary. You may also bequeath some money to that person, so your beloved pet does not become a financial burden. Legally, the person can spend that money however they want; but if you trust them to care for your pet, then — again — this is likely not a concern.
If something happens to you, where you are unable to care for your pet but you are still alive, you can add a provision to your Power of Attorney that allows your attorney-in-fact to make decisions regarding the health and care of your pet. (remember, pets are property and therefore, an attorney-in-fact can handle those decisions).
What Is a Pet Trust?
Caring for your pet after your death was a lot trickier until just a few years ago, when Massachusetts passed a sweeping trust reform bill that codified, among other things, pet trusts. (You can read the law here: MA Law on Pet Trusts).
A Pet Trust designates a trustee
to handle the money, a caregiver
to take care of the pet, and the beneficiary
is the pet. The trust can last as long as the pet’s lifetime (with certain exceptions
I need not get into), and after the pet dies, the remaining funds go to a named beneficiary.
This type of planning may seem unnecessary when it comes to the typical dog or cat. They don’t live long lives, and their financial needs are small. When it comes to animals that live longer lives, like horses and birds, and require a significant investment to house, feed, and care for them, a pet trust is a good way to give the pet to a caregiver who may not be able to afford their upkeep. So, for your niece who loves to ride your horse, but could never pay for your horse’s maintenance, you may want to set up a pet trust for your horse. You could designate your niece as the caregiver (as long as she is over age 18) and a trusted adult as the trustee for the finances.
What Does it Cost to Have a Pet Trust?
As with other estate planning needs, the cost of working with an attorney will vary. For a pet trust in Massachusetts, I charge $900 to do just the trust, but I will include it in an estate plan package if you have other estate planning needs.
There are online products that are advertised as allowing you to provide for you pet. I took a look at the product offered by LegalZoom. The pet care plan available through LegalZoom establishes a power of attorney that allows for someone else to care for your pet. Here’s the big downside: As with all power of attorney forms, it stops working the moment you die. The moment you die, the pet becomes an asset of your probate estate. The LegalZoom document also includes a contract between you and the caregiver of your pet. The big downside: That contract has to end within a few years after your death. Your executor will be tasked with terminating the contract based on its terms. Although this pet care plan may provide you with peace of mind, it’s not going to provide an estate plan for your pet.
To have an enforceable document that provides care and support to your pet, you need to have a pet trust. A trust will survive you. That is, after you die, the trust lives on and can be enforced.