Human Hands Holding Animal Paws

Another Species of Estate Planning – Pet Trusts

Michael S. Winsten Nov. 10, 2021

Back in 2007, a Maltese pup named "Trouble" who was the pet of hotel heiress Leona Helmsley was left a trust fund of $12 million to pay for the dog’s care. Unfortunately, pet inheritances have suffered a dubious reputation ever since.

The Value of an Animal Trust for Your Pet

For those who care about the well-being of their animals or livestock, animal trusts can play an essential role in ensuring that the animals get the care they need after the principal caregiver passes. After all, estate planning aims to provide for the family, and many of us consider animals as part of the family. Trusts can ensure that money is put aside to care for animals when the animal's primary human is no longer there. This legal document is significant for long-lived animals like parrots, horses, or tortoises.

Because trusts avoid the probate process, there is no delay in the continuity of care. Trusts also surmount another obstacle by creating a legal entity to receive money. This document is necessary because money or life insurance proceeds cannot be left directly to an animal.

What Can A Pet Trust Designate?

A trust can appoint a caregiver to provide a home, name a trustee to manage the money, and state animal care instructions. These instructions may supply essential information about the animal's diet, preferred veterinarian, and, for example, farrier.

Here are the elements that go into a pet trust.

  • Carefully consider whom to appoint a caregiver. Ideally, name several people as backups with whom you have discussed the proposal beforehand. Leona Helmsley unwisely named unwilling family members.

  • Describe your animals as a "class" if you own several, or you can specify your animals by name or photo, or microchip number.

  • Provide details for the care the animals need, including diet, medical attention, and maintenance schedule.

  • Allocate reasonable funds to pay for your pet's care. "Reasonable" doesn't mean $12 million. The Helmsley judge reduced that amount to a paltry $2 million to maintain Trouble in the manner she had become accustomed to until she went to her final reward in 2011 at age 12.

  • Itemize bloodlines for prize livestock or horses. Valuing them correctly can make a big difference in the worth of an estate.

  • If you have taken out loans to finance the purchase of a herd, identify whether you got credit for specific purchases or blanket financing for all stock purchases. Those debts will need to be settled before any of your human heirs can inherit.

  • Provide instructions for the disposition of your pet’s remains.

  • Designate where funds should go if there is money left over after the animal passes.

When appropriately drafted with the help of an attorney, pet trusts can save significant money and time. And, your estate plan will provide the care you want for everybody you leave behind – your family and your animals.

If you're interested in learning more about pet trusts or discussing your estate planning needs, please don't hesitate to reach out. We would be happy to help. Please contact us at 949.418.1083 and schedule a free consultation to discuss your legal matters.