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Create a Pet Estate Plan for Your Fur Family

Make arrangements now for care and maintenance in the future

woman holding her kitten while on the sofa at home
michellegibson/Getty Images

Nina Heller-Fields, 58, was in her mid-40s, getting an inexpensive no-fault divorce, when she mentioned her horses to the paralegal preparing the documents. 

“You should have a trust for your animals,” the paralegal told her. 

At the time, Heller-Fields was estranged from her sister, and she didn’t want her ex-husband to have sole responsibility for what would happen to her seven horses, three cats and five dogs if she died or became severely incapacitated. “I really felt like there would be no one to step in to care for them,” says the Studio City, California, resident.

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Like a growing number of Americans, the certified riding instructor of 30 years decided to form a pet trust, a legally sanctioned arrangement providing for the care and maintenance of companion animals in the event of a grantor’s disability or death. Doing so requires very specific paperwork and funding mechanisms that differ from leaving money and property to human family members.

With the largest spike in mortality in the United States in a century, following the onset of the pandemic, providing for one’s pets after death has become a growing topic of conversation for many animal lovers across the country. 

 “Shelters are seeing an 11 percent increase of animals being surrendered because of people passing away from COVID or ending up too sick to take care of pets,” says Amy Shever, executive director of 2nd Chance 4 Pets, a nonprofit animal welfare organization that works to provide lifetime care solutions for pets. “These poor animals who have been sitting on someone’s lap are suddenly without a home.”

 When pet parents have not made plans for the continued care of their pets after their death with family or friends assuming ownership, more often than not those beloved pets are surrendered to shelters. This happens to more than 500,000 animals per year, according to Shever. 

 Sadly, many of those pets do not make it out alive. Recent data collected from Best Friends Animal Society found that in 2021 there was an increase of shelter pets euthanized(mostly dogs and cats) in the U.S. shelter system for the first time in five years, up to 355,000 from 347,000.

Designate caregivers, sanctuaries

For pet owners who have not been able to identify a caregiver for their companion after their death, 2nd Chance 4 Pets recommends that pet owners explore the option to have an animal sanctuary or perpetual-care program take over the care of a pet. Lists of these programs can be found on their website.

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The far better option is to identify an appropriate person to take over the care of one’s pet for the rest of its life and to spell out the plans and finances in writing.

About 12 years ago, Heller-Fields paid around $700 to have her trust drawn up. It stipulates that the proceeds from her $100-a-month long-term care and life insurance policy that she had taken out when she was 40 (in case she got injured riding) go toward the care of her animals. 

Heller-Fields’ trust was designed with a board of three trustees who are supposed to check and balance one another to determine how exactly the money will be allocated and what will be done with her assets. The trustees could decide to sell Heller-Fields’ horse property in nearby La Tuna Canyon or could find an appropriate long-term student or another like-minded trainer to continue running her barn. “The trust is going to have to make final decisions, so you have to pick people who know your heart and what you would do if push came to shove,” she says.

Legally, it’s not possible to leave money directly to an animal, so setting up a pet trust with either one trustee or a board to oversee the process is the best way to ensure one’s critters will be properly cared for until they pass.

A stand-alone pet trust (or “living trust”) exists from the moment it is created. A dedicated account can be set up in the name of that pet trust, or it could be named as the beneficiary of a life insurance policy or retirement plan. In the event of an accident or death, it would be funded immediately.

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It can also be set up as a pet trust within a larger trust like a drawer within a dresser. This type of trust does not kick in until death. These detailed plans prevent the kind of delays that are common in probate, but there can still be delays in accessing the money if the pet trust is getting a specific amount of money from the larger trust, says attorney Peggy Hoyt, author of All My Children Wear Fur Coats: How to Leave a Legacy for Your Pet. “You may have to wait until the administration of the trust is complete.”

Hoyt once had a client who had a pet trust written into his will, but it took five months to get it funded after his death. During that time, his cats were living in his home without a full-time caregiver. The neighbors and some friends went over to feed them out of the goodness of their hearts, but had the cats experienced some sort of health issue or emergency during that time, there would have been no resources to pay for their care.

With costlier animals like equines and birds that require more intensive care, this sort of delay in funding could be catastrophic. “The boarding barn could sell your horse to auction or, worse, just not take care of it,” Hoyt says.

Most estate planners suggest using a life insurance policy to cover the costs of pet care; however, for exotic animals that live a long time, such as parrots or tortoises, an endowment that invests its fund to earn money for the care of the pet is worth considering. “A 10-year-old parrot could easily live another 90 years,” says Gerry Beyer, a professor at Texas Tech University School of Law and an estate planner. “You have to plan for a succession of caregivers and put more money into a trust that will earn money over time and won’t get depleted, as opposed to [with] a dog or cat.”

There are several online calculators to help pet owners estimate how much money they will need to leave for their specific pet. 

One of the most important aspects of designing one of these legal documents is ensuring someone trustworthy will be there to make sure the animal is being cared for, whether by a friend, family member, sanctuary or professional trustee. “It’s important to not only draw up, [saying] ‘Here’s this money and I want it to go here,’” Hoyt says. “You need to have someone you trust.”