Estate Planning Law

Take Care Of All Your Children: Don’t Forget The Furry Ones

By Rebecca G. Doane, Esq. and Randell C. Doane, Esq., published in the Palm Beach Daily News, January 30, 2020

When developing an estate plan, we generally begin by thinking about the needs of our family and how their lives would be affected if we were suddenly gone. Who would take care of our minor children? Can the grandchildren afford college? Would my spouse be able to pay our monthly bills? However, one often overlooked member of the family is perhaps the most dependent of all, the family pet. Did you know that you can set aside funds and leave instructions for your pet’s care as part of your estate plan?
Florida law allows pet owners to set up a trust for the care of their animals. Prior to the enactment of this legislation, pet owners could leave their pet to someone under their will and some money to care for their pet, but there was no mechanism to ensure that the funds were used for that purpose. Once your assets are distributed, the probate court generally provides no further oversight. Additionally, a will only takes effect after one’s death, thus it is of no assistance when a pet owner becomes incapacitated.
Through the use of a pet trust, a pet owner can bequeath a designated amount of money for the care of their pet in the event of their death or incapacity, and name a fiduciary to manage those funds throughout the life of the animal. This fiduciary, known as the Trustee, can be given specific instructions as to how often the pet should visit a veterinarian, how often the pet should be groomed, what kind of food they should be fed, etc. The terms of the trust can be enforced in court by a person named in the trust, or if nobody is named, by someone appointed by the court. Anyone with an interest in the welfare of the animal may request that a court appoint someone to enforce the terms of the trust. The court can then remove the Trustee, name a new Trustee, or provide needed guidance to the Trustee.
Unlike a will, a trust can go into immediate effect without court proceedings. The funds can be made accessible immediately upon creation of the trust, or upon the happening of a specified future event, such as the owner’s death or incapacity. This means that the trustee can provide uninterrupted care for the animal whenever the owner is no longer capable.
Before visiting your attorney to create a trust for your pet, you should consider who should be given physical custody of your pet, who should manage the funds for your pet’s care, and who should provide oversight of your pet’s care. Multiple people or organizations can be involved, so that a system of checks and balances is in place. You should also try to forecast a realistic budget for the care of your animal. Consideration should be given not only to what you currently spend on your pet, but what should be set aside for your pet’s twilight years when more advanced or palliative medical care is likely to be needed. You should also put together a list of any specialized instructions that may be necessary for the care of your pet, so that they can be incorporated into the terms of the trust.
Your pet trust should be very specific as to the animal or animals that you intend to benefit. You can and should include any microchip information, photographs, and identifying markings. The life span of the animal or animals who are to benefit from the trust will also determine when the trust terminates. A pet trust cannot be designed to continue in perpetuity, it must terminate upon the death of the last surviving pet identified in the trust.
Lastly, the pet trust should provide instructions for what you intend to happen when your pet reaches their final days. You can include guidance on euthanasia and provide burial or cremation instructions. The trust must designate who should receive the remaining trust funds upon the death of the pet. This can be any person or organization you choose. Many pet owners select a favorite animal shelter or rescue organization to receive the remaining funds in memory of their beloved pet.
When you sit down to create your estate plan, don’t forget about the four-legged family members. Anyone who has ever brought home a pet immediately realizes that their care is an enormous responsibility, but far too often we forget that this responsibility may continue beyond our own lifetime. By creating a pet trust now, you will be assisting your pet’s caregivers with the guidance and financial stability they need to ensure that your pet is well taken care of even if you are unable to continue to care for it.