If you own a pet, you know that somewhere ahead lies the heartbreaking day your companion will die. But what if you die first? Or become incapacitated? Under U.S. law, pets are counted as personal property, in the same category as clothes, a home, vehicles, and other possessions. If you die without making provisions for a pet, the beneficiaries of your estate will become the animal’s legal owners. Similarly, if your health deteriorates or you have to go into the hospital or a nursing home, you’ll have to hope family members or friends will take in your pet.
That may be fine; your children, for example, may be more than happy to take care of your cat or dog either temporarily or permanently. But if you know they couldn’t or wouldn’t want to take on that responsibility, a “pet trust” could establish who will take your pet, how it will be cared for, and how the care will be funded. This may be a necessity if you live alone and have no heirs; if you are elderly or ill; if your pet has special needs; or if your pet has a long life expectancy, such as certain birds and snakes that may survive for decades. Of course, even dogs and cats may live for more than 20 years.
Setting up a trust is one option in a five-step process to protect your pet, according to estateplanningforpets.org.
Select a caretaker. The person or organization that will care for your pet must be willing and able to do it. Make sure the designated caretaker understands your pet’s needs, and arrange a time for them to get to know each other. Also discuss funding for care and any compensation for the caretaker.
Get paperwork in order. You’ll need documentation identifying your pet, veterinary information, care instructions, and any trust or other legal documents.
Ensure access. Give the caretaker keys to your home and the location of pet-related documents.
Calculate funding needs. Estimate what it will cost to take care of your pet. Take into account everything from food and vet bills to grooming, boarding, and other costs.
Make legal arrangements. You can simply draw up a written plan, have the caretaker sign it, and make a gift of any caretaking funds. Or you could have your attorney create a pet trust, which will also mean appointing a trustee to oversee the caretaker actions under a trust agreement.
A pet trust is a legal document mandating care and maintenance of pets in the event of the owner’s death or disability. You place the pet and caretaking funds in the trust, designate a caretaker, and appoint a trustee. This may have several advantages over providing for your pet in a will, which may not take effect until days or weeks after your death. A trust clicks in immediately, and it can cover both death and disability and exclude your pet from a lengthy probate process.
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