Estate planning is all about providing for those you love, and if you are like most pet owners – 90 percent of them to be exact – your pet is a cherished part of the family. Indeed, often times, pets are the only family someone has. So like any loved one, pets should be taken into account when planning your estate.
Like many individuals, you may question the necessity of developing a trust for a pet. Most pet owners would like to believe that they will always be there to care for their beloved companion. But the point of estate planning is to prepare for the unknown, and in the result of an unexpected illness, injury, or passing, your pet will suddenly find itself without the care it needs to survive.
To avoid this grim scenario, do not leave anything to chance – take your pet into account when planning your estate, just as you would any loved one. Address where and with whom your pet should be placed, and set aside any necessary financial support. Since pets are more than ever considered to be family, it is no longer unusual or unfeasible to incorporate them into your estate plan.
This is where pet trusts come in. Once limited by a range of legal obstacles, recent changes at both the state and national level have made pet trusts more palpable. Since 2002, the state of Florida has fully authorized and codified the creation of trusts specifically intended for pets (F.S. §736.0408). The trust can safeguard a pet for as long as it lives, and can even be established for multiple animals, whereby it will remain in effect until the death of the last pet. Trustees can be designated in the trust document or, if need be, appointed by a court. For further peace of mind, a dedicated trust protector may be selected to ensure that the terms of the trust are followed through, even if that means removing the offending trustee.
One of the most important things to take into account when planning your pet trust is who you designate to care for your pet. Needless to say, your beloved family member must only be entrusted to the person(s) or organization(s) most able and willing to care for it. But the individual or group providing routine care is not all you have to worry about; you need to select someone to administer the assets allotted for the benefit of the pet, be it a trusted individual or qualified professional. To preempt any conflict of interest, it is critical that the caregiver of your pet and the trustee administering the funds are not the same person or legal entity.
In selecting an ideal pet caregiver, consider the following criteria: is the person or organization willing to take over all day-to-day responsibilities related to your pet? Will the pet caregiver handle not only the basic necessities – such as feeding, cleaning, etc. – but also provide the genuine love and affection you would have wanted? Does the pet caregiver have the patience, kindness, meticulousness, and other personal and ethical qualities necessary to be a guarantor of your pet’s best interests? Is the pet caregiver someone you can trust to remain consistent and steadfast to your standards of care for your beloved companion?
These are among the factors to take into account when seeking a pet caregiver. Any candidate you have in mind for this important role should be personally reviewed and consulted to ensure that they truly understand what is expected of them. Make sure they have both the capabilities and willingness to carry out your vision for a healthy, happy, and loving future for your pet.
To further safeguard your pet’s interests, keep in mind a successor to your selected pet caregiver if your initial choice is unable or unwilling to continue. This decision can be delegated to the pet caregiver or the trustee, who will be tasked with selecting another loving and viable home for your pet if the initial nominee falls through.
As noted earlier, Florida permits the appointment of a trust protector, an individual or entity with the power to enforce the trust and guarantee that its assets are being properly utilized for the benefit of the pet. If need be, the trust protector may also remove the trustee if the latter is failing to do their job. Pet trusts also allow for the inclusion of a specialized animal care panel, which oversees the activities of the pet caregiver and/or the trustee and assists in sensitive medical decisions. The panel can be authorized to appoint alternative pet caregivers or trustees if deemed necessary to the pet’s best interests.
Needless to say, filling the roles of pet caregiver, trustee, and other participants in your pet trust is of supreme importance – the fate of your pet rests in their hands. When planning your pet trust, be sure that the legal experts you are consulting are made well aware of your standards and preferences.
Finally, when planning any trust fund, you must take into account monetary costs. With respect to trust funds for pets, special considerations apply; caring for your pet in the long-term means allocating enough funds to cover expenses, veterinary fees, compensation for the pet caregiver, and other relevant expenditures. These matters are in turn influenced by the type of animal your pet is, the pet’s lifespan, any specific standards of care (such as special diet or medicine), and unforeseen emergencies or incidents that may require additional funds.
With these considerations in mind, you have several monetary options available. You can simply distribute a fixed sum of money to the pet caregiver, allot a percentage of your estate to the caregiver or to the trustee, or even leave your entire estate for the benefit of the pet’s lifetime care. Each of these options has their advantages and disadvantages, so think about them carefully and consult a trust legal professional.
Ultimately, such concerns are best addressed by leaving behind clear written directions that specify what the pet’s care entails and how much it will cost. This will guarantee optimal care of your pet in your absence, and should be written up in as detailed and comprehensive a manner as possible. Take into account what the pet requires, its medical history and current health issues, its service providers (such as groomers and veterinarians), what to do in the event of an emergency or critical illness, and how it is to be handled following its death. Be thorough and forward-thinking.
In the end, while pet trusts remain a comparatively novel and complex concept in Florida law, they afford a considerable amount of leeway in helping you ensure the best future for your beloved companion. Never before have pet owners had a viable opportunity to safeguard their animal loved ones from the unexpected vagaries of life. When planning your estate, ask your attorney about pet trusts and how you can best provide for your loyal companion when you are gone.