Betensky Law PLLC has a trusts and estates practice that utilizes various estate planning tools to effectuate clients’ wishes. One such tool is the pet trust. Clients with pets are sometimes concerned about the well-being of their animals after they become incapacitated or deceased. Attorneys at Betensky Law PLLC assist those clients by listening carefully to their concerns, learning about their pets, and drafting a pet trust that includes pets’ names, ages, veterinary requirements, dietary requirements, shelter requirements, exercise requirements and other care giving details.
Humans have been domesticating animals for thousands of years. There is evidence that as long as 12,000-14,000 years ago humans were raising and training wolf cubs. According to recent data from the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), based on national averages there are approximately 200,600 dogs, 219,100 cats, and 24,400 birds residing in Westchester County, New York. As of February 2017, there were 85,085 dogs in New York City with active licenses. Moreover, some data suggests that pet ownership is growing, especially among non-married people.
Pets provide us with a great deal of love and companionship during our lifetime. But what happens when we can no longer care for them? This is where an experienced pet trusts attorney can help pet owners plan for the future and help ensure that their furry friend, winged avian or favorite equine is in good hands.
What is a Pet Trust?
A trust is a legal arrangement whereby a person (trustee) holds property for the good of one or more beneficiaries. In a pet trust, the beneficiary is an animal. Setting up a pet trust while a pet owner is healthy allows the pet owner to ensure that the pet is cared for after the pet owner becomes disabled or deceased. An “enforcer” can also be named for “checks and balances” to make sure the caregiver acts in accordance with the trust agreement.
What happens to my pet if I do not set up a pet trust?
There is no requirement to set up a pet trust. However, there are many disadvantages to leaving a pet trust out of a person’s estate plan.
At a minimum, most people want to ensure that their animal continues to receive certain basic items such as food, shelter and veterinary care. In the past, pet owners have relied on their Last Will and Testament (“Will”) to accomplish that goal. However, for many reasons a trust is a far better vehicle.
First, any care giving requirements in a Will may be unenforceable.
Second, a Will does not provide for the animal in the event that the animal’s owner is incapacitated but not deceased.
Third, there is a time gap of weeks or even months after the pet owner dies while the Will goes through probate and does not become legally effective until the Surrogate’s Court issues Letters Testamentary and gives the executor the legal authority to carry out the decedent’s wishes. When the Will goes through the probate process a Judge may change the pet care provisions, e.g. if the Judge decides they are unreasonable.
Under New York law, pets are considered personal property and have legal status similar to an automobile or stereo equipment. Using a Will to “dispose” of the pet in the same manner as an automobile or stereo has obvious problems. First, there are enforceability issues. Who will monitor the beneficiary to ensure that the pet is being cared for in the manner which the grantor intended? How will the beneficiary know how to properly care for the pet? What if the beneficiary does not have the financial means to properly care for the pet (including food, boarding fees, veterinary bills, burial/cremation bills, etc.)? What if the beneficiary resides in a location where pets are not permitted?
What are the advantages to a pet trust?
There are many advantages to a pet trust. First, the pet’s trustee and caregiver are hand selected by the pet owner in advance and given specific instructions and funding. The grantor can be quite specific including the name of the veterinarian, the number of wellness visits, the type of food, and financial arrangements. If the pet owner cannot find a relative or friend to act as the caregiver, a not-for-profit organization may be an option. The grantor can specify how often the trustee shall check in on the pet. Any remaining funds after the pet dies can be donated to a not-for-profit organization. As mentioned previously, an “enforcer” can also be named to “police” the trustee and make sure the grantee’s wishes are being carried out in accordance with the trust agreement.
The pet trust also overcomes the Rule Against Perpetuities which essentially places an expiration date on a trust as measured by the life of a human plus 21 years. New York allows the trust to continue for the life of the pet without regard to such time limit.
Based on the foregoing, there are many advantages to including a pet trust in a person’s estate plan.
Are pet trusts unique to New York?
No. pet trusts are now legal in fifty states and the District of Columbia.
New York’s pet trust law is set forth in Section 7-8.1.17 of the Estates, Powers and Trusts Law (“EPTL”). That law has six sections which can be summarized as follows:
- A trust is valid for the care of a “domestic or pet animal.” This is generally considered to include dogs, cats, birds, guinea pigs, hamsters, fish, rabbits, lizards, horses, turtles and tortoises, even other domestic animals.
- A person can be appointed with the ability to enforce the terms of the trust.
- The trust terminates upon the death of the animal or animals for which it was created.
- Upon the termination of the trust, the trustee shall transfer any remaining trust property as directed in the trust instrument or, if there are no such directions in the trust instrument, the property shall pass to the estate of the grantor.
- A court may decrease the amount of money to be transferred into the trust for the pet’s care if the amount is unreasonably large.
- The court may appoint a trustee if no trustee is designated or no designated trustee is willing or able to serve.
What are the disadvantages to a pet trust?
Pet trusts may cost time and money above and beyond a Last Will and Testament. The pet trust may require updating as old pets die, new pets are acquired, pets’ needs change, and living circumstances change. However that is true of most estate planning vehicles and for the reasons expressed herein, the benefits of a pet trust far outweigh any detriments.
If I set up a pet trust, do I also need a Power of Attorney?
A pet owner can appoint an agent to handle any pet emergencies in a Power of Attorney in the event that the pet owner is incapacitated or otherwise not available. Therefore, a Power of Attorney can supplement the pet trust.
Where should I keep emergency pet care instructions if something happens to me unexpectedly?
A pet owner can carry written instructions in their purse or wallet dictating what should happen to their pets in the event of an emergency, disability or death, with information on who should be called in the case of emergency, how they can be contacted, and what arrangements should be made.
How Do I Set Up A Pet Trust?
Setting up a pet trust is fairly easy. The first step is to contact an experienced attorney, communicate your wishes to the attorney, and ask the attorney to draft a trust agreement that clearly articulates those wishes in writing.
How much does it cost to set up a pet trust?
Depending on the nature and scope of the trust, the work to set up the trust can be billed at an affordable, flat fee basis.
While cats may have nine lives, humans get only one. In New York, a pet trust is the preferred alternative to ensure that the pet is properly cared for after the owner is disabled or deceased. There are many advantages to setting up a pet trust. The pet trusts can set the owner’s mind at ease knowing that their furry family member will be well cared for after the owner is gone.
 “The Evolution of Pet Ownership.” PEDIGREE®, Pedigree, 5 Jan. 2017, www.pedigree.com/dog-care/dog-facts/the-evolution-of-pet-ownership.
 “How Many Pets Live in Westchester County?” Westchester Magazine, www.westchestermagazine.com/Westchester-Magazine/May-2013/How-Many-Pets-Live-in-Westchester-County/.
 “New York City’s Dog Population.” NYCEDC, 21 July 2017, www.nycedc.com/blog-entry/new-york-citys-dog-population.