More and more, everyday family life includes a pet as a member. According to the 2011-2012 National Pet Owners Survey, the number of U.S. households that own a pet has increased to an all time high of 72.9 million.
Some people might even prefer their pets to their human family members. A Los Angeles Times article mentions a pending court case in Florida, that pits a son against his mother’s dogs in a battle over her estate. According to the article, Brett Carr, the only surviving child of heiress Gail Posner, claims that his mother was not in the right state of mind when she decided to leave a $3 million dollar trust fund to her three Chihuahuas and only left him income from a $1 million dollar fund.
Nothing But Trouble
The Posner case might remind some of us of the outrage that followed the revelation that real estate tycoon Leona Helmsley’s dog, Trouble, was given $12 million in her will. The amount was later reduced to $2 million, but controversy continued swirling around Trouble, who required $100,000 a year for a full-time security guard because of death threats. Recently, the New York Times reported that Trouble passed away last December.
Whatever your opinion of these two cases, they bring to light the idea of leaving money to take care of a beloved pet after the owner dies. This is not something that just happens with the super rich. The American Veterinary Medical Association website explains, that for many years, Americans tried under traditional trusts and estate law to care for their pet. However, they often encountered legal trouble. Since a pet is considered property, it could not legally be a trust beneficiary.
The AVMA report explains that in 1990, a provision in the Uniform Probate Code (UPC) adopted by the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws, made a change that allowed for the care of a pet who outlives its owner. Since then, most states have taken action and enacted laws allowing pet trusts.
Only Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, and West Virginia do not have some sort of similar legislation. This past April, the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals–Angell Animal Medical Center announced that Massachusetts joined with most other states and enacted a law that lets residents form legally enforceable trusts with the pet as the beneficiary. The law allows a trustee for the trust and a separate caretaker for the pet.
Including a pet in an estate plan is becoming more common. An article on WPTV.com states that in Florida, estate attorneys are contacting no-kill shelters to make arrangements. Many dogs and cats in shelters now have trust funds to pay for their care.
However, sometimes owners need to be even more detailed in their planning. For instance, if you want your pet to remain living in your house after you die, find someone in advance and name him or her in your estate plan. Be very clear. More careful planning now will lead to more peace of mind later. In addition, pet owners considering a trust for their animal should find an attorney who has handled these cases before.
By: Lisa C. Johnson, Esq.