Most states have adopted pet trust laws allowing owners to provide for beloved companions
Pet owners living in West Virginia are able to provide for Fido and Felix from beyond the grave, now that the Mountain State has joined 45 others in allowing residents to establish pet trusts.
The wave of pet trust laws acknowledges the growing importance companion animals are playing in the lives of Americans by creating legal conduits for owners who want to leave funds and instructions ensuring their beloved pets receive appropriate care when owners are no longer able to provide it.
More and more American households are adopting pets and increasingly consider the creatures great and small as members of the family. “The importance people place upon companion animals has only increased in recent years, both in terms of the amount of money spent on them and the reported emotional value owners place upon these pets,” states the Animal Legal and Historical Centerat the Michigan State University College of Law. “Despite this, most pet owners are unaware or uninformed as to what might happen to their pets should they die or become incapacitated.”
A trust can save a pet from suffering the fate of an estimated 150,000 animals that are euthanized each year as a result of their owner’s death. About 62 percent of American households own at least one pet, up from 56 percent of households in 2008, according to a 2011-2012 survey by the American Pet Products Association. That adds up to more than 151 million freshwater fish, 86 million cats, 78 million dogs, 7.9 horses and millions of birds, reptiles, guinea pigs and other small mammals.
Historically, owners were frustrated in attempts to create trusts for their pets. In the eyes of the law, pets are considered personal property and as such are unable to inherit property, such as money held in trust, and until recently could not be beneficiaries of a trust.
The legal landscape began to change in the 1990s when the Uniform Probate Code was amended to allow pet trusts, and states began adopting pet trust laws, the animal law center states. A trust allows an owner to set aside money to care for a pet, select a caretaker and give specific instructions about the food, housing, toys and veterinary care the pet will received. All this is overseen by a named trustee. In most states, the trust expires upon the death of the pet, and some owners specify the remainder of the trust goes to a non-profit animal rescue society.
A whole industry has sprung up in the new legal environment. Pet owners wishing to establishing trusts can purchase kits online starting around $29.99 or can seek the services of an attorney specializing in estate planning. A key consideration is the amount to leave a pet. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals recommends leaving a reasonable sum to prevent the trust from being challenged by family members or invalidated by the court.
In 2007 New York City hotel magnate Leona Helmsey, the “queen of mean,” left $12 million to her Maltese, Trouble. A court later reduced the amount benefitting Trouble to $2 million and gave the remainder to Helmsey’s grandchildren.
Average annual costs of caring for a dog in 2011-2012 are $1,542 for a dog and $1,217 for a cat, the American Pet Products Association reports. A pet’s life expectancy is another consideration. Owners of a python can expect their pet to life for 30 years, while macaws can live for 100.