VIDEO SCRIPT – Americans love owning pets…and for good reason…there are some 68 million dogs and 73 million cats in the U.S. that everyday make their owners feels better. Research shows that living with pets provides certain health benefits such as lowering blood pressure, reducing anxiety and increasing animal allergy immune systems in children. People who own pets are less likely to suffer from depression and of course walking a dog is good exercise for both the owner and the animal.
So it should come as no surprise that seniors who own pets and are afraid their pets might outlive them would want to formally plan for their animal’s well-being. The legal instrument of choice is a trust that sets forth instructions on the care of the animal and how the trust should be administered.
For centuries, the legal establishment frowned upon allowing trusts for pets because there was no human beneficiary’s life upon which to establish the duration of the trust. But in 1993, the Uniform Probate Code, which is a model used by many States – was amended allowing trusts to be set up to care for pets for the rest of their lives and then terminate upon the death of the pet. Since then, nearly every state has made amendments to its own probate code to allow for the creation of trusts to take care of pets.
The average amount left to pets for their continued sustenance and care is about $25,000, but to date only about 17 percent of all pet owners have taken any legal steps to provide for their animals after their death.
One reason surely is because estate planning for pets seems like a fringe concept…something eccentric wealthy people do…like millionaire heiress Gail Posner who made news when she bequested $3 million to her chiuhauhas – Conchita, Lucia and April Marie…or Leona Helmsley – New York’s infamous Queen of Mean who – when she died in 2007 – left 12 million dollars to her Maltese pooch Trouble, while opting to completely cut several grandchildren from her estate.
Nevertheless, estate planning for pets is becoming more mainstream with trusts that provide for custody, distribution allocations when there are multiple pets and one dies, trust administration, residency requirements, caregiver instructions and compensation, and specific instruction such as never putting a pet into a kennel, ensuring it is walked daily, receives monthly grooming from a professional groomer and is never used for medical research or product testing. Some trusts provide for a caregiver bonus if the animal dies from a natural death due to old age.
Some people go so far as to establish Pet Panels, to provide guidance and oversight to trustees and pet caregivers. These panels have broad authority with final say on choice of caregivers, issuance of caregiver performance reviews, and power to make end-of-life decisions, including euthanasia to reduce pet pain and suffering.
And of course memorial instructions are important for those who set up trusts for their animals, providing where and how a pet should be buried or cremated, content for memorial markers or where to spread ashes and of course all of this is usually accompanied by a “meaningful memorial service.”
No doubt pet trusts can be abused…a cat can’t complain to a probate judge if instructions on diet or accommodations are not followed. A dishonest trustee could fraudulently extend the life of the trust to continue receiving a stipend…like a lady in San Francisco who was appointed trustee for an ordinary looking black cat and upon its death merely substituted it for another cat and then another before being discovered.
Perhaps one important reason for setting up a pet trust is to relieve adult children of the burden of having to provide for the care of their parent’s animals, to whom they have little attachment. By setting up a trust, the owner has peace of mind that upon his or her passing the animal will be provided for.
When it comes to planning for senior community living, pets are generally welcome and there usually will be a specific contractual provision requiring that animals be pre-approved before moving in. Teacup the toy poodle might be more welcome at a community than Sampson the St. Bernard – and exotic pets such as snakes and monkees are frowned upon. Cats are usually acceptable because they require less maintenance.