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Providing for Fido: How Pet Trusts Work

Animals hold a bizarre and not altogether coherent standing in most court systems. As we learned in the sad and inspiring story of Pumkin, pets are usually valued as property by courts. What that means is that a pet is generally worth it’s “market value” except in cases of “wrongful injuries to animals . . committed willfully or by gross negligence, in disregard of humanity.”

On the flip side of that coin, any dog, ape, cat, or parrot can be named as the recipient of a trust. What you end up with is stories like Liona Helmsley’s dog Trouble, pets who are “worth” a few hundred dollars having trust funds in the multiple millions.

If that doesn’t make much sense to you, well, you’re not alone. But Pet Trusts are an established part of Estate Planning. They allow you to set up a fund for the care of your animal after you’re gone, though, of course, you’ll need to elect a trustee to spend the money on behalf of your pet.

You know, unless your dog has figured out capitalism.

Now, there are a few different ways to provide for your pet. The easiest, most common, and most recommended way is with a Pet Trust.

On the books in 46 states, Pet Trusts allow you to set up a fund to take care of your pet when you’ve passed away. You’ll need to appoint a trustee (who will handle the administration of the trust based on your wishes) and a caretaker (who will actually look after your pet). It goes without saying you should trust these people and, if at all possible, they should have a relationship with your animal.

One thing we learned from Liona Helmsley’s (besides how to be ostentatiously wealthy and aggressively cruel), is that your Pet Trust should also account for your pet’s death. Most people will have the remaining cash in the fund roll over to a charity and, being that you’re a pet lover, the ASPCA is never a bad choice for your leftover assets.

You can also choose to form what’s known as a Testamentary Trust. That means your trust is created in your will and will become active only when you’ve passed away. Since your Will goes through the probate process, which can in fact be lengthy, your Trust may be delayed, causing all sorts of headaches for your trustee, your caretaker, and your pet.

A Pet Trust, however, generally does not go through probate. Furthermore, you can make arrangements so that your Trust becomes active should you become incapacitated in any way, thus allowing for your pet to be cared for while you’re alive. This option is not available with a Testamentary Trust.

Long story short: unless you live in Minnesota, Mississippi, Kentucky, or Louisiana, you have a Pet Trust law on the books in your state. But even in those states that there’s no specific pet trust law, there are ways to provide for your furball—just make sure you consult a lawyer.

And do make sure to include a provision for a charity to receive the extra assets if your pet doesn’t use the whole trust. There are plenty of other animals out there you can help.

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