Do you have a pet that you dearly love? Is your pet just as much a member of the family as your spouse or your children or Uncle Cosmo? You love Fido so much, you wish you could make sure he’s properly taken care of when you die. “Alas,” you might think, “if only I could provide for Fido in my will. But I can’t leave money to a dog.” Or can you?
While Fido can’t sign a check or use a debit card, under Louisiana law, a trust can be created for the benefit of a pet. A trust is created when a person (the “settlor”) gives property to another person (the “trustee”) for the benefit of a person or an entity that exists and has rights under the law, such as a corporation (the “beneficiary”). Trusts normally cannot be created for a beneficiary that is not a “natural or juridical person” – a human being or an entity that exists and has rights under the law. Pet trusts are an exception to the legal requirement that a trust be created for a “natural or juridical person”.
The role of a trustee with regard to any trust is to manage, invest, and distribute trust property according to the terms of the trust, and that remains the case with a pet trust. The beneficiary – in this case, the pet – will receive benefits under the terms of the trust. The pet trust adds a fourth role, that of caregiver. A pet trust can designate a caregiver for each animal named as a beneficiary of the trust. The caregiver will have physical control of the animal and will be responsible for its care.
No special language is needed to establish a pet trust, so long as it is clear that you intended to provide funds for your pet’s care. It can be as simple as including language like “I leave $10,000 to Fido, and I want my brother Joe to take care of him” in your will or trust. Property in a pet trust is to be used only for the care of each animal named and for reasonable compensation and expenses of the trustee and the caregiver. What is “reasonable” depends on how the animal was cared for before the trust was created. If you kept Fido on a chain in the backyard under a shade tree, trust funds can’t then be used to pay for a deluxe two-story doghouse with central heat and air. If Fido’s travel was limited to annual trips to the vet for checkups, the caregiver can’t then take Fido to Gulf Shores and expect that the trust will cover the expense. If a court determines that the amount of the trust is more than what is necessary for care of the animal and for reasonable expenses, the court can terminate the trust as to the amount that exceeds what is necessary for those purposes.
A pet trust will terminate upon the death of the last surviving animal for which care is to be provided under the trust. The trust can specify who will receive any funds remaining in the trust when Fido is no longer living. If the trust doesn’t give any direction as to how those funds will be distributed, they will be distributed to the settlor of the trust – the person who created it – if that person is still living, or to the people who would inherit from the settlor upon his or her death.
Establishing a pet trust is part of your estate planning, as it has an impact on how the property in your estate will be distributed. As such, it is important to consult with a qualified professional advisor to ensure that a pet trust will fit in with your overall estate planning goals.
The information provided is not intended to be legal advice and does not constitute an attorney/client relationship. You should consult with an attorney for individual advice regarding your own situation. Ms. Melancon has engaged in the practice of law in Ascension Parish for the last eighteen years. The primary focus of her practice is estate planning, probate, special needs planning and elder law. For more information or to attend an upcoming estate planning seminar, call her office at (225) 744-0027.