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Pet Trusts

Hello friends! Tuki here from my perch at the Potter League. One of the most difficult things I see here is when an animal companion comes to the Potter League because that animal’s person has passed away or can no longer care for the animal. This can be a very hard time and ensuring that our animal companions are taken care of can help bring a lot of comfort.

A pet trust is a legally enforceable agreement that provides money and instructions to care for one or more animals when a person is disabled or dies. All 50 states and the District of Columba have pet trust laws. These laws allow for the creation of a trust for the care of any animal(s) alive during the lifetime of the person setting up the trust. The trust terminates upon the death of the last surviving animal. In Rhode Island the pet trust law was enacted in 2005.

You may ask, ‘What’s the difference between a pet trust and a will – can’t I just provide for my animals in my will?’ This is a very good question, and there are some important differences:

  • Pet trusts can provide money and instructions for caring for an animal. The instructions can be very specific including which veterinarian the animal should go to, what kind of food they should get, and what kind of activities they should have. Wills only determine who gets what. They cannot enforce specific instructions such as how to care for an animal and they can’t ensure that the person asked to care for an animal will do so!
  • Pet trusts can go into effect when a person is still living, just unable to care for their animal. They can also be used to keep an animal and their person together if the person goes into an assisted living facility. And we know that there are a lot of health benefits, including lower blood pressure and less stress, that people get from their pets! A will only goes into effect when someone has died.
  • Pet trusts allow for the money to be distributed over the lifetime of an animal. A will distributes all the funds at once and there is no guarantee that the person caring for the animal will use the money for the animal’s care.
  • A pet trust can appoint a person, other than the animal caregiver, to invest the money in the trust to grow the funds for the care of the animal.
  • There is typically a waiting period before a will is read and its contents are enacted. This leaves a gap of time in which there may not be anyone to care for an animal. Also, if there are any disagreements over the will, a final settlement may take longer than expected.
  • Changes can be made to a will at a judge’s discretion if there are legal challenges or disagreements. A pet trust ensures that you are making the decisions about caring for your animals.

Now, you may be thinking, ‘How can I go about setting up a pet trust for my best friend?’ Well there are a few things to consider:

  • Who do you want to care for your animal? Talk with your family members and friends to see who will be willing to care for your animal and follow the instructions you provide in the trust. Also, think about naming a second person willing to care for your animal if circumstances change for the designated caregiver.
  • How much money do you want to put into the trust? You will need to think about the costs of caring for your animal now and as they get older when they may have more expenses.
  • What instructions do I want to provide for my animal’s caregiver? Describe your animal’s care and living situation, as well as specifics such as food, exercise, veterinarian care.
  • What do I want to happen when my animal dies? You should specify the final disposition of your animal (e.g. burial, cremation).
  • How can I be sure that the funds are used only to care for my animal? You will need to identify your animal to prevent fraud using a microchip, photography, or DNA sample. You can also designate someone other than the animal’s caregiver to be in charge of distributing the money for your animal’s care.
  • What happens if there is money remaining when my animal dies? Designate a beneficiary for any remaining finds. This can be an organization such as a charity or an individual such as the animal’s caregiver.
  • What if I have more than one animal and I want to keep them together? This should be specified in the pet trust and discussed with the potential caregiver.

A pet trust can be set up by most estate planning lawyers, but you may want to do some research and find a lawyer who has experience in setting up pet trusts. An option similar to a pet trust is a pet protection agreement. This can be done without a lawyer and is still legally enforceable. There are many online legal sites whose fees are typically lower, that can help with this or provide the forms for you to complete.