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Planning for Your Four-Legged Friends as Part of Your Estate

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They listen to our stories and complaints when no one else is around. They encourage us to get off the couch and be active when we're feeling lazy. They comfort us, provide a sense of security and never judge us.

But what happens to our beloved pet or companion animal when we're no longer able to look after them? Increasingly, people are turning to pet trusts.

A pet trust can be a stand-alone document created solely for the purpose of caring for your pet when you're no longer able to do so, or a series of provisions included in a general trust that addresses how your pet should be cared for and provides funding for that care after you're gone. Such a trust, enforceable under Michigan law and in most other states, can create a framework for caring for the pet that doesn't rely solely on the kindness of friends and family, and assures the pet will be properly cared for through the end of its life.

Such trusts are no longer simply an eccentric creation of the rich; they are accepted tools for animal lovers of all economic levels to assure that, when they are gone, their four-legged friend is not euthanized or placed in a shelter.

A pet trust benefits the animal's owner and can benefit the survivors who, while well-intentioned, may not have the means or ability to properly care for the cat, dog, parrot, horse or more exotic pet.

Most estate planning attorneys are becoming more aware of the need for providing these tools for their clients, and can assist in structuring a trust to cover these terms. If your estate planning attorney is unfamiliar with pet trust provisions, they can collaborate with an estate planning attorney at Mika Meyers who is familiar, so your complete estate plan will care for all your loved ones—two-legged and four-legged.

A GOOD PET TRUST SHOULD PROVIDE FOR:

  1. CAREGIVER. Your trust should identify a succession of caregivers who you'd like to care for your animal or animals, in case one is unable or is unwilling.

  2. TRUSTEE. The trustee is responsible for managing the funds you set aside for your pet's caregiver and overseeing the caregiver's activities. It's best not to appoint the same person as trustee and caregiver, to provide some oversight.

  3. FUNDING. The trust holds funds you set aside to care for your pet. These funds can be transferred to the trust during your lifetime, or can pass to it after you die, through a pour-over will, beneficiary designations on a bank account or investment account, a life insurance policy, or otherwise.

  4. REMAINING FUNDS. The trust should provide for a recipient of any leftover funds. It's usually recommended to name a charity, not an individual, as a charity usually will not have the same incentives to look for the pet's early demise.

  5. INSTRUCTIONS FOR THE CAREGIVER. Your trust should provide instructions on what care you expect the pet to receive.

  6. PET IDENTIFICATION. The trust should specifically identify the pet, if possible, by description, age, et cetera, and should provide that it would cover any pets you own at the time of your passing.

  7. MULTIPLE PETS. Pet trusts should provide instructions as to whether the pets should be cared for together or separate.

  8. CAREGIVER COMPENSATION. The trust can provide some compensation for your caregiver. It should be fair, but not an amount that would incentivize the caregiver to inappropriately attempt to extend the life of the pet beyond a point where the pet is comfortable, to maintain a stream of income.

  9. FINAL DISPOSITION. Your trust should provide for the final disposition of your pet. If you've arranged for the pet's remains to be taken care of, that information should be provided in the trust.

A comprehensive, well-drafted pet trust or trust provision for a pet doesn't need to be an expensive undertaking. While it may add some cost to your estate planning, it will provide the pet lover in you added peace of mind—knowing your trusted companion will be properly cared for after you're gone.

WMWContributors-NeilJansenNeil P. Jansen, an attorney at Mika Meyers, focuses in civil and real estate litigation, probate litigation, estate planning and eminent domain. He received his bachelor's degree in political science and international studies from Michigan State University and his law degree from Wayne State University. He is a member of the Grand Rapids and State of Michigan Bar Associations, the American Bar Association and the National Order of Barristers, and is a Camp Blodgett board member.


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