Recently I mentioned the fact that I had selected godparents for my Pekingese, Matilda, and that I had made provisions so that if something happened to me, her godparents wouldn’t be obligated financially to care for her in addition to having to take on the big role of taking care of her in general. It didn’t take long for someone to ask me if I really had a “trust fund” set up for my dog and how one actually does that. It’s actually quite simple to do, and without a doubt, I suppose I can say this honestly:
My dog is a trust fund baby.
That may sound absurd, but it’s true. Well, perhaps trust fund puppy or trust fund doggy is more accurate. Nonetheless, I calculated what I believed it would take to care for Matilda the rest of her life and have ensured her godparents would receive money if they had to care for her. Just to ease the minds of anyone who thinks I’m robbing my children of any extra financial support, let me clear the air — I’m not married, and I don’t have children. Right now, there is only one living, breathing being (aside from my myself) that I’m obligated to care for and keep alive, and that’s Matilda. When that changes, I’ll make the necessary provisions.
For those who aren’t animal lovers or those who don’t have pets, it perhaps seems as extreme as people taking dogs to puppy massage parlors or who share ice cream cones with Fido without second thoughts. But similarly to the way my mother tells me I’ll never understand the love a parent has for their child until I am one, it’s understandable to think something like pet trust funds and/or pet wills are absurd if you don’t have pets and know that you need to care for them.
What Are Pet Wills?
Pet wills are as legally binding as any other will, and ensure a good future for pets after the owner’s death. The will ensures there’s someone who will look after the pet and continue providing the care the owner did.
According to Joyce Tischler, the founder and general counsel for the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), being able to name pets as beneficiaries and creating pet wills is still a relatively new idea that really didn’t pick up until 2000. Additionally, she said states have started to adopt policies that allow pets to be named as beneficiaries. Since pets are living longer and healthier lives, wills and trusts make perfect sense, she said.
Here’s how it works: The owner provides a specific sum of money through a bank or trusted person, choosing sufficient amounts for Fido’s care. Be economical though — if you think it’s a little crazy to even set up a pet will and trust, consider what real estate baroness Leona Helmsley did for her nine-year-old Maltese. Helmsley named her dog as a trustee on her will, leaving $12 million to the dog. It was later reduced to $2 million, and she also left around $8 billion to go towards caring and helping the welfare of dogs.
So if you don’t have millions (or billions), how much do you leave your pet?
Tischler said the first thing to do is the math, and to think about things such as the kind of food and how much food your pet will need the rest of its life, and how much future medical expenses the pet will likely need covered. Remember to figure out how much longer your pet is likely to be around too, as well as inflation costs when factoring in things like food, vet bills, and other supplies.
Types of Trusts for Pets
Typically, two types of trusts are applicable to pets. Traditional pet wills or trusts work in a very detailed manner. The pet owner gives money to the tasked caregiver or beneficiary that will take care of the pet after your death and provides specific instructions for the pet.
Most pet owners opt for traditional trusts because they usually allow particular requests for whoever will look after their pets in the future. Moreover, owners can state the possible expenses for taking care of the pet, the specific needs of the pet, and what to do if the beneficiary is no longer fit to care for the animal.
When to Fund Pet Trusts
As to when you should fund a pet trust, your first option is an inter vivos trust, for which you’d provide the funding yourself while alive instead of waiting for benefits to be released into the trust after you die. For example, a lot of people with pet trusts create trusts detailing what portions of of their life insurance or other financial assets like savings will go to Fido when they die. With an inter vivos trust, you’re putting that money aside on your own while living, so if something happened, the money would automatically be there just for that purpose. Essentially, you’re not funding your pet trust with money that will only be released and available when you die, like life insurance. However, there are additional fees in terms of start-up, which can be a hassle in having this trust.
A few owners create testamentary trusts, which also becomes a part of their last will. This type of trust is only applicable if the owner dies, so if you’re disabled or can’t care for the pet, you won’t have legal recourse about what you’ve designated for Fido. Additionally, there’s a waiting period until the trust or will is probated by a court, so funds may not be available during that time meaning no money would be available to your beneficiary until the will is probated.
Although this trust is cheaper than inter vivos, there are drawbacks. This trust only takes effect when the owner is already dead. Thus, disability or the owner’s inability to care for the pet is not included in the trust. Moreover, there’s a risk of not having enough funds in the trust during the time after your death and the probating of your will.
As for actually creating the documents, Tischler recommends using a DIY document for pet trusts and wills that you can find on NoloPress.com, where the documents are up to date with all laws and are legally binding forms.
“It’s important to make language general,” said Tischler. “If you’re suddenly hospitalized, who will take care of your pet? Pets aren’t like toasters. They need to be fed and walked and cared for right away.”
She said it’s imperative to choose a “godparent,” which is helpful too if you were injured or ill and in a hospital for an extended period of time.
Another reason for slightly generic language is because your beloved pet could pass over before you. By keeping language more general, you’ll be ensured that any pet you have will be covered after your death.
“You’ll want your will to cover whatever companion animal or animals that are living with you,” she explained.
So if I have Matilda, and get another dog too, I want to make sure the paperwork says any and all of my household pets are covered and that my will applies in case I fail to add my new dog to the trust. Part of pet responsibility is being prepared for such scenarios, and creating another document with an emergency plan on it. Tischler recommends two or three friends or neighbors have keys to your house in case they suddenly need to look after your pet.
Ways to Fund Pet Trusts
There are many ways for owners to fund trusts, including opting for a direct transfer of funds to the trustee. This applies to trusts made while the owner is living. Another way is through life insurance. The payee or the owner simply allots some policy funds for his pet. Lastly, the owner may have a death account, retirement plan or other savings in the bank intended for his pet. He may make any formal arrangements with the bank authorizing the trustee to receive the funds in the bank for your pet.
As for those scoffing at the idea of having pet wills or trusts, Tischler believes it means something wonderful.
“Our society is caring more about the health and safety of our animals,” she said.
The bottom line — your pet is a life counting on you for everything. If something happens to you prematurely, your pet still needs care, and making sure your pet will have that is one of the most selfless and loving things you could ever do to reciprocate the unconditional, unique love pets give us.
Follow Desiree on Twitter @DesireeBaughman.