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What a difference a decade makes. The notion of including pets in trusts and wills was once considered a bit kooky. But over the past several years, legally recognized pet trusts have become increasingly popular — and owners are going to great lengths to ensure their pets’ safety, comfort and even dietary needs.
“Ten years ago, people thought it was almost funny to talk about estate planning for pets,” says Texas Tech University law professor Gerry W. Beyer, author of Fat Cats & Lucky Dogs. “The interest is now very serious . . . it’s gone from fringe to mainstream.”
Since 2000, when the Uniform Trust Code extended to statutory pet trusts, the number of animal trusts has ballooned — and most states now authorize them. Unlike a will, which can only be enacted after an owner’s death and must first go through probate, a trust appoints caregivers who can be called upon whenever they’re needed.
Designating caretakers — so that pets have guardians, and don’t risk going to a shelter or pound — is one of the obvious benefits. But, as you'll see from these five novel approaches, the sky’s really the limit when planning a pet trust.
Pet owners sometimes get squeamish when it comes to acknowledging the fact that they might not be able to care for their animals someday. Instead, think of the trust as a document of affection and protection, suggests attorney Rachel Hirschfeld, a pet trust expert and author of Petriarch: The Complete Guide to Financial and Legal Planning for a Pet’s Continued Care.
“You’re really writing a love letter to your animal,” she emphasizes. “If you go to a lawyer, put your heart in [those documents].” So consider your pet’s daily routines, favorite treats and personal history. Many ideas for the specifics of a pet trust will spring from close knowledge of your pet. These details, in turn, can help establish an adequate level of care.
Hirschfeld explains that, by describing the specifics of your current pets, you can also cover the needs of other pets that you might have in the future. “The wording should say, ‘This is the standard of care that I want for my animal.’ The emotion you bring to it, the way you treat your animals now, can be the same for later pets.”
You never know what the future will bring, so come up with not one, not two, but three or more potential caretakers for your pet.
“Think multiples, not single alternatives,” says Beyer. While many people name a family member or close friend, you should reach deeper into your contacts list for several backups. Hirschfeld recommends selecting some animal lovers, even if they’re not the closest people to you personally. If they end up becoming caretakers, odds are good that they’ll do a great job.
This is especially important for pets with long lifespans, such as parrots and tortoises. “The animal is going to outlive everyone you know and trust,” stresses Beyer. “You have to set up a mechanism, like a committee of vets and trustees, as a way of ensuring that the animal is being cared for consistently.”
The next time that you’re going through the motions — feeding your cats, taking the dogs for a walk — make a precise list of what you’re doing. What time do your dogs usually go to the park? Does your cat get a specific brand of treats? Do you scratch their ears when they lie down for a nap? Whatever may be second nature to you could be helpful information for a future caregiver.
For animals, maintaining certain habits and schedules will help them to better weather a transition to a new caretaker. “There’s no such thing as too much information,” says Hirschfeld.
Other good fodder for a trust: brands of food, favorite toys, grooming and healthcare schedules and providers, types of collars and other preferred apparel — and even the exact kind of carrier that you use to take a pet to the vet.
You should also think about special situations. “How are [your pets] in the snow?” asks Hirschfeld. “Is your animal afraid of something, like lightning? What calms them?” All of these personal details will enable your chosen caretaker and your pets to bond more quickly.
Some animals, like dogs, are particularly attached to their owner’s unique smell, so consider having a piece of your clothing kept for a little while for your pet. Hirschfeld recalls one client’s pet trust provision: washing an item in a certain brand of lavender soap, and then spritzing it with Chanel No. 5 perfume, to re-create her scent for the pet.
Some owners have taken an even bigger step when setting up a pet trust: They ask their chosen caretakers to move into their homes. This most often occurs when a pet has a special physical need, or if it's an older pet who wouldn't transition well to a new environment.
Attorney Danny Meek, who specializes in estate planning for pet owners, has seen a growing number of these requests. “My jaw kind of drops, but I understand the intent and the desire of the owner,” he admits. “That takes a lot of advance preparation, a lot of conversations [with] the caretaker . . . But the trust ends when the animal dies, and then the caregiver gets the house.”
Beyer has seen such cases, too, including homes that have large, free flight spaces for birds. “Sometimes the animal’s emotional, as well as physical, well-being depends on it,” he says.
In short, as long as your wishes are legal, you can specify anything. Just look at Dusty Springfield’s dog: After the singer died, the dog's caretaker played Springfield's songs come bedtime.
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