One indicator of how a society values animals is its laws. In the United States, where at least one pet can be found in an estimated 63 percent of all households, the bond between people and animals is strong. In fact, data suggest that more and more people are making provisions for their pets even when they aren't around for the entire life of the animal. Estimates suggest that 12 percent to 27 percent of pet owners include pets in their wills.
For years, the U.S. legal system had prohibited pet owners from establishing trusts for their pets because, among other reasons, an animal cannot act as a beneficiary with standing to enforce a trust.
The ban eased in 1990 when the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws recommended that states adopt a law allowing enforceable trusts for the care of domestic and pet animals. Ten years later, commissioners approved pet trusts during an owner's lifetime and beyond, ending with the animal's death.
Estate planning for pets is one of the fastest growing areas of animal law and, arguably, one of the most important. Pets are considered personal property, similar to a car or jewelry, and when a person dies, the person's pets pass to his or her heirs or beneficiaries. It might be that one's heirs aren't interested in looking after a new pet, however.
In addition, people often assume they will survive their pets or that friends or family members who have promised to look after the pet are still interested in doing so. This is not always the case, according to Robert Blizard, director of Donor Marketing and Outreach for the Humane Society of the United States.
"Sometimes, their current circumstances prevent them from fulfilling that promise," Blizard said. "Meanwhile, employees of local animal shelters frequently see the unintended consequences of people's failure to appropriately provide for their pets in their wills or adequately ascertain that friends, relatives, or neighbors truly want new companion animals in their homes."
A pet trust helps to ensure that a person's wishes for his or her pet are carried out. According to Gerry W. Beyer, a professor at Texas Tech University School of Law, there are two main types of pet trusts. The first type is a traditional pet trust that is recognized in every state. In this case, the owner instructs the trustee—the person in charge of dispensing the funds—to cover the expenses of keeping the pet, which will be provided by a caregiver after the owner's death.
Many pet owners will prefer the traditional trust because of the control it provides, Beyer said. "You may specify who manages the property, the pet's caregiver, what type of expenses relating to the pet the trustee will pay, the type of care the animal will receive, what happens if the beneficiary can no longer care for the animal, and the disposition of the pet after it dies," he explained.
The next type of trust is a statutory pet trust, which many but not all states allow. This is a simpler plan in which the owner isn't required to make as many decisions about the terms of the pet trust and can be as basic as a provision in one's will stating, "I leave $1,000 in a trust for the care of my dog, Spot."
A pet trust can be established while the owner's alive—a living trust—or by including the trust provisions in one's will—a testamentary trust, explained Beyer. The living trust immediately takes effect when the owner dies or becomes incapacitated. This option often comes with additional start-up costs and administration fees because funds must be transferred to the trust while the owner's still living.
Although cheaper, testamentary trusts don't take effect until a court declares the will valid, according to Beyer. Moreover, if the owner were to become disabled, the trust wouldn't provide for the pet. Many states have developed their own particular statutes concerning pet trusts, Beyer noted.
Beyer recommends that pet owners carry a pet card in their wallet or purse. The card should include information about the pet, such as its name, type of animal, location, and special care instructions, along with contact information of the person who has access to the pet in case of an emergency.
Owners should keep a document containing that same information with the will. This is an added way of seeing to it that the owner's wishes are respected, according to Beyer. Additionally, signs stating that pets are on the owner's property are to be posted in clearly visible areas.
Organizations providing long-term care for pets of the deceased or disabled are an alternative to pet trusts. The Stevenson Companion Animal Life-Care Center at Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine is one such program. The privately funded center was created in 1993 to meet the needs of pets whose owners are no longer able to provide that care. Clients of the center include pet owners who now reside in retirement homes, are hospitalized, or have died.
Other organizations, such as the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, will place a pet with a loving family and provide lifetime monitoring and health care for various fees.
Navigating estate law isn't for the faint of heart, especially for the layperson who only wants to guarantee that his or her pet is taken care of. Fortunately, resources are available. The HSUS offers a free kit, "Providing for your pet's future without you," complete with a six-page fact sheet, pet card, emergency decals for windows and doors, and caregiver information forms. The fact sheet is available online at www.hsus.org/petsinwills.