"You become responsible forever for what you have tamed."
~ Antoine de Saint-Exupery
While we frequently consider children and other loved ones when preparing our wills, very few consider their furry family members. Fortunately, there's never been a better time to consider what will happen to your pets if you are no longer alive or become unable to care for them. Massachusetts has adopted legislation validating pet trusts. Because pets are legally still considered personal property, they were previously incapable of being named as beneficiary of a trust. The Massachusetts legislation, however, now permits pets to be identified directly as beneficiary of a trust, and supports the validity of such trusts. Establishing a trust for a pet is simply a way of making sure your pet is provided for by selecting someone to care for them and setting aside means to fund their care. In addition, Massachusetts adopted a new Probate Code which went into effect in 2012. The new code eases the strict formalities formerly required in estates and trusts. This means that trusts in wills (testamentary trusts), and trusts that take effect while you are alive (inter vivos) will all be significantly easier and less expensive to administer. These changes make planning for pets easier than ever before.
There are a few simple things you need to consider when planning for your pet:
1. Who will care for your pet?
Some key considerations involved in selecting a suitable caregiver include their willingness to assume responsibility for your pet as well as their ability to provide a stable home for your pet. An alternate caregiver should be identified as well in the event the primary caregiver is unwilling or unable to serve when the need arises.
2. Who will serve as trustee of the trust?
The trustee of your trust is the individual who manages the funds held in the trust and makes sure the caregiver is doing a good job. You may select a family member or friend who is willing to do the job without charging the trust, or even the caretaker themselves in certain circumstances. Depending on the amount of money held in trust, it may be prudent to select professional trustees with experience in managing trusts, although they will charge for their services
3. How much money should be placed in trust?
Consider the life expectancy of your pet and project the annual costs of food, veterinary bills, grooming, whether your trustee will be paid and other special circumstances that may apply to your pet. You should avoid over-funding your trust as this could lead to other beneficiaries contesting the trust. If contested, the Court may reduce the amount in trust if it feels the amount is vastly excessive, as it did in the case of hotel heiress Leona Helmsley who left $12 million in trust for her dog Trouble (the Court reduced it to $2 million). One thought on funding a trust is to name the trust beneficiary of a life insurance policy.
4. Which type of trust is right for me?
The type of trust that is right for you depends on your circumstances. A testamentary trust is simple and inexpensive to include in a will. The testamentary trust, however, only applies at death and is subject to supervision by the Probate Court. The inter vivos trust is more costly, but is private and not generally subject to Probate Court supervision, and it applies during your lifetime in the event you are no longer able to care for your pet, as well as following your death.
Including pets in our estate plans is not only a way to show compassion for them in exchange for their unconditional love, but it is a responsibility we take on when we assume their care. And now it's simpler than ever.
Holly Rogers specializes in estate planning and probate administration and serves as Guardian ad Litem for the Berkshire County Probate Court. She is a1998 cum laude graduate of the Suffolk University Law School. Attorney Rogers practiced law exclusively in the Boston area before relocating to the Berkshires in 2007 where she lives with her dog, Sherpa.
This article originally ran in Animal Life newspaper. Contact Holly Rogers, Esq. to talk about planning for your pet's future. Click here.