Let’s face it. Our pets are not just loyal companions, they’re members of our family. We have them groomed, we make sure they have their favorite chew toys when we leave for work, we hire pet-sitters when we go out of town. We even buy pet insurance to cover their medical expenses. We love them like children. And just like our kids, they are dependent on us for their care.
So what would happen if you were unexpectedly missing from their life? Well, just as you would plan for your human loved ones in the event of your incapacity or passing, you can plan for the care of your dogs, cats, and other animal friends with proper estate planning.
Understanding pet trusts
A pet trust is an estate planning tool in which you, as settlor, formally detail your wishes for the care of your pet and set aside funding or other assets for that care. A trustee, which you choose, oversees the distribution of the trust funds to a caretaker, whom you also choose and who actually cares for your pet. The caretaker must adhere to the instructions you’ve provided in the trust document, but an enforcer, whom you also choose, is charged with ensuring that the caretaker actually follows your wishes.
While your first instinct might be to simply add language to your will that includes a bequest to Rover and Fluffy, your intent could not legally be fulfilled because pets are considered personal property in Texas and therefore cannot inherit property themselves. And unlike an informal promise from a well-meaning friend to care for your pet, a trust is legally enforceable and provides the most security for your pet. Moreover, the use of a trust removes any possibility of the caregiver absconding with bequeathed assets and leaving your pet vulnerable.
Trusts can be made during your lifetime, so they become effective immediately and continue for the rest of your life, or they can become effective immediately after you pass, unlike terms in your will that would be delayed by the probate process. In both cases, trusts can provide seamless care without lapses for the entire life of your pet.
Customized plans for long term care
Settlors are given wide latitude in crafting the terms of their pet trust, so very specific instructions may be provided for the pet’s care. This ensures that your furry companion will have the same affection, exercise, food, toys, and treats they have always enjoyed. You can even choose a specific veterinarian or emergency clinic to administer care when needed. Pets are particularly susceptible to stress during major life changes, so the minimal disruption afforded by a trust ensures any anxiety they may experience is minimized.
Pet trusts are not just for household pets. They can also be utilized for the care of work animals, show animals, barn animals, or breeding animals. Significant investment may have been made in such animals, and a trust ensures they are allowed to keep competing or working as long as they are able. Trusts are particularly appropriate in the case of specially trained animals, like service animals. Providing for the continued care of a seeing-eye dog or emotional-support animal can be an important part of a settlor’s legacy.
Short term pet care planning
In the event of an emergency or your unexpected incapacitation, it is smart to have quick planning measures in place to make sure there is no lapse in the care of your pet, including the following:
- Power of attorney for pet care – This document allows a pet owner to appoint an agent to act on their behalf to care for their pet in the event of the owner’s incapacitation. The agent can be given authority to use the owner’s money for food, veterinary fees, and other general care of the pet. The document can also be used to detail end-of-life preferences for the pet, should the owner’s incapacity last for a prolonged period of time.
- Emergency care sheet – This sheet, available from TrustBridge Legal, provides comprehensive pet care information and instructions for caregivers in the event of an emergency or prolonged incapacitation. It is also a handy tool to use when traveling, if the pet will be cared for by a loved one while you’re away.
- Animal card – Sometimes called a “pet alert card,” this credit card-sized laminate can be carried in a wallet or purse and contains your name, address, and information about the pet, including special care instructions and the contact information for emergency caregivers. A card like this is helpful to emergency personnel if the owner is injured or otherwise unable to care for their pet, as they can notify the caregiver to step in and provide temporary care.
- Rescue pet sticker – These stickers can be affixed somewhere in the front of your home to indicate to emergency personnel that there is a pet inside the house that needs to be rescued in the event of an emergency. They are readily available at your local pet store.
With pet trusts and other planning techniques, there is no need to worry about what happens to your beloved companions when you are unable to care for them. You can outline exactly how you want your pets cared for before something happens and be assured that your pet’s life is in good hands.