Making Sure That Pets Get the Care They Deserve

A pet trust ensures funds and day-to-day care for pets

By Kevin Gault
Edited by Bernard A. Krooks, JD, CPA, LL.M, CELA

For many people, pets are far more than just animals—they’re beloved members of the family. In the unfortunate event that a senior pet owner becomes incapacitated or passes away, setting up a pet trust helps ensure that their pet receives the compassionate care they deserve.

What exactly is a pet trust? It’s a legal agreement that provides for the care and maintenance of one or more companion animals. The grantor is the person who creates the trust and the trustee holds funds for the care of the grantor’s pets. The trustee makes regular payments to a designated caregiver to cover a pet’s food, day-to-day living expenses and medical costs.

Many seniors never think about creating a pet trust, and that can lead to unfortunate consequences. Failure to properly plan for the pet’s life after the pet owner dies causes an estimated 100,000 to 500,000 pets to be sent to animal shelters each year after their owners become incapacitated or pass away. In communities with many senior citizens, pets outliving their owners can comprise half an animal shelter’s population.

Depending on the state in which it is established, a pet trust will continue for the life of the pet or 21 years, whichever comes first. Some states allow a pet trust to continue for the life of the pet without regard for the 21-year limit, which is a good thing for animals with longer life expectancies.

It’s appropriate that the word “trust” is part of the term pet trust—it’s essential to have total trust in the people whom you designate for this agreement. “When a person creates a pet trust, it’s essential that they’re absolutely sure the trustee and caregiver are people who have nothing but the animal’s best interest at heart,” says Michael J. Amoruso, Esq., of Amoruso & Amoruso, LLP in Rye Brook, N.Y.

According to Hyman Darling, President, National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA), having open communication is essential: “You have to talk to the people who you’re naming in the trust to make sure they’re willing to take on that responsibility. Give them specific instructions—spell out in specific terms the things you want them to do and make sure they’re OK with it. Make sure that they’re the right people to take care of your pet the way you want them to.”

Here are some tips for setting up a pet trust the right way:

Establish Expectations—Create an information packet that details your pet’s medical history and daily care needs. Make sure the information is easily accessible and specifies the standard of living you want for your pet, including medical care and endof-life decisions. Review the information closely with your trustee and caregiver.

Talk About Money—Determine the funds needed to cover expenses for your pet’s care and specify how they should be distributed from the trustee to the caregiver. Be sure to make the pet trust separate from other trusts in your family. Don’t commingle the money with anybody else’s—in the future, they might claim they have a right to it.

Safeguard the Trust—“It’s important to have someone in the role of trust protector,” says Darling. “That person isn’t the trustee or the caregiver. They’re an independent party who watches over everything to make sure the pet is getting the proper care and money is being administered correctly. That person makes sure the people involved are doing the right thing.”

Beware of Scams—Stay on guard for trustees and caregivers who have their own best interests at heart, not your pet’s—they agree to provide care solely because there is a financial incentive to do so. There have been cases in which, when the grantor of the trust passes away, the trustee and caregiver took the money and left town, abandoned the animal or had it euthanized. In a few cases in which a pet has died while under their care, the trustee and caregiver replaced it with a similar-looking pet so they continue to receive payments from the trust.

Contact An Elder Law Attorney—“To make sure the pet trust is done right, I highly recommend seeking out a qualified elder law attorney through NAELA (www.naela.org),” says Amoruso. “Many people are attracted to estate planning documents online that they prepare themselves, but to make sure your documents are executed properly, it’s best to work with an experienced elder law attorney. That way, you’ll be sure that the pet trust will stand up in court if it’s challenged. Also, doing it the right way gives the pet owner peace of mind, knowing that their pet is going to be well taken care of and always have good quality of life.”

Bernard A. Krooks is managing partner of the law firm Littman Krooks LLP (www.littmankrooks.com). A certified elder law attorney, he is a past president of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and past president of the Special Needs Alliance.