A pet trust for Fluffy

You don’t have to be Leona Helmsley to set up a trust for a beloved pet.

After the billionaire Helmsley’s death, her white Maltese lived in the lap of luxury on its multi-million dollar trust fund. But Pennsylvania law allows people of even modest means to provide for a dog, cat, or other animal that is as dear as a family member (or, let’s face it, more dear than that nephew who drops by only when he needs help paying his bar tab).

Suppose you’re concerned about Fluffy, who greets you with wild tail-wagging each morning, listens attentively to everything you say, and never talks back. What will become of Fluffy when you die or go to a nursing home? Who will walk him and buy him his favorite smoked pig ears?

In recent years, Pennsylvania joined about 40 other states that have passed laws to make pet trusts valid and enforceable. Such statutes are important because pets (otherwise considered property by law) cannot inherit from their owners.

Under a pet trust, you give Fluffy, along with enough money to pay for his care, to a trustee. The trustee, usually a trusted friend or bank, has a duty to arrange for the proper care of the pet according to your instructions.

You can establish a pet trust for Fluffy during your lifetime (called an “inter vivos” trust), or by means of a clause in your will.

One advantage of an inter vivos trust is that it can go into effect as soon as you become unable to care for your pet. A clause found only in your will may not be discovered until after Fluffy has gone hungry or been given away.

Your pet trust should contain specific instructions about Fluffy’s care, such as the type and amount of food (and any specific brands) he eats, medical care (including preferred veterinarian), grooming needs, daily routine, favorite treats, toys, and so on.

Determine who the trust should name as Fluffy’s caretaker. The trustee will deliver Fluffy to the caretaker for care according to your instructions.

Check to make sure the caretaker you name is willing to take on the responsibility. That will put you one step ahead of Leona Helmsley, whose proposed caretaker reportedly had no interest in the post. Be sure to name a substitute caretaker in case your first choice dies, or is unable to provide care.

You can fund the trust up front, or provide for funding through a bequest in your will. The funds can come from your estate, or from some other arrangement such as life insurance, a “pay on death” account, annuity, or retirement plan. Depending on your pet’s needs, the trust may require as little as $200 to $2,000 a year.

If you set up an inter vivos trust, you may also need to change your will to make reference to the trust and perhaps provide additional funding.

Under Pennsylvania law, the trust lasts until the end of your pet’s lifetime. If you have set up the trust for more than one pet, it will last until the death of the last surviving animal. Any remaining funds will then return to you, if you’re still alive, or can pass to a beneficiary you name.

You will probably also want to leave instructions about disposition of the pet’s remains after its death, such as burial or cremation.

An attorney knowledgeable about estate planning, and pet trusts in particular, can help you set up a pet trust that complies with Pennsylvania’s trust laws.

Fluffy might not eat hand-fed meals from a silver serving set like the Helmsley dog, but you can rest easy knowing Fluffy will have his smoked pig ears even when you’re gone.

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