Pet estate planning: preparing for your pet's future
The idea of writing a pet into a will or establishing a pet trust
sounds atypical, even unenforceable. But, in many states
it is enforceable, and it's becoming more popular.
Children are ideally supposed to outlive their parents. This
dynamic is reversed in the situation of pet and pet owner. Pet
owners, in their lifetime, generally own and bond with several
companion animals. It is responsible to draft wills in cases
where children are involved, but what if clients were to die or
become incapacitated, expectedly or unexpectedly? Veterinarians
can advise clients that there are ways to deal with the situation
of not surviving their animals.
It was documented in the late 1800s that the common-law courts of
England supported the idea of giving monies to care for specific
pets. This idea did not make it to the United States,
specifically because doing so would be contrary to the idea that
a pet's life does not equal a human life, and a pet cannot act as
a beneficiary with standing in enforcement of a trust.
"[According to the courts], pets are like the dining room table,"
says J. Alan Jensen, a Portland, Ore., based tax and estate
planning attorney. "The pet is a personal possession: they are
tangible property of the owner."
Pet owners might take offense to that statement, as a study by
the Delta Society showed. About 87 percent of pet owners surveyed
said they view their animals as family members. Not surprisingly,
a 1999 USA Today article reported that between 12 percent and 27
percent of American pet owners have included their pets in their
People magazine reported that British singer Dusty Springfield's
will made strict provisions that her cat, Nicholas, be fed
imported baby food, and her songs be played at his bedtime.
American Tobacco Company heiress Doris Duke left a trust in the
amount of $100,000 to her dog. It is alleged that Oprah Winfrey's
will mandates that her Spaniels will live out their lives
"This has been an area that I would describe as under the legal
radarscope," Jensen said. "There have been lots of cases
involving the care of pets and the use of the decedent's property
to care for a pet that survives. But the situation really has not
been dealt with in any coherent fashion."
In 1990, the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform
State Laws added a section to the Uniform Probate Code to
validate "a trust for the care of a designated domestic or pet
animal and the animal's offspring." Currently, California,
Oregon, Alaska, Kentucky, New York, and Wisconsin enforce pet
trusts, that is, monies and/or property set aside to care for an
animal, not to exceed a time frame of 21 years. Usually imposed
is an honorary trust, where a personal representative had been
chosen before to take care of the animal. An honorary trust is
one that depends on the willingness of the trustee to implement
Pet owners who live in states that have not adopted the probate
code enforcing honorary pet trusts can just as easily write the
pet, and the intended new pet owner, into their wills.
"The owner of his or her will can designate a beneficiary to
inherit the pet," Jensen said. "But, there's no stopping that
person from giving the animal away the next day, or refusing the
inheritance. It is critical to have a discussion with the people
[to whom] you look to care for the animal."
Not uncommon are organizations willing to be the animal's
caretaker when family and friends cannot be. The Society for the
Prevention of Cruelty to Animals of Texas offers the Pet
Survivors Life Care Program, wherein the pet owner arranges for a
gift to the SPCA in an estate plan, funded either by life
insurance, real estate, appreciated securities, or a bequest in a
will. A minimum payment of $10,000 ensures that a pet will be
placed with a loving family, and given lifetime monitoring and
health care by the SPCA Quality Control Department and veterinary
staff. The Kansas State University College of Veterinary Medicine
offers the Perpetual Pet Care Program, similar to the Texas
SPCA's, for a minimum gift of $25,000.
Organizations such as the Humane Society of the United States and
animal shelters offer information and guidance to pet owners
looking to prepare for their pet's future without them.
In addition to the family attorney, Jensen thinks the family
veterinarian is a natural resource to start consulting about pet
He thinks veterinarians should be aware of their state pet trust
laws, or lack thereof. Slowly, Jensen said, laws are changing to
Lee J. DiVita
Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association
December 1, 2001
American Veterinary Medical Association
Copyright © 2004
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