Posts Tagged ‘pets’

Estate Planning Issues For People With Pets

MAY 27, 2013 VOLUME 20 NUMBER 21
Does anyone else remember reading “Rhubarb,” a 1946 novel by H. Allen Smith? The basic story: an eccentric millionaire leaves his entire fortune to a stray cat (the eponymous Rhubarb). Among the assets in the cat’s inheritance is a baseball team (the fictional New York Loons). Hilarity ensues. The novel was even made into a movie in 1951 (starring Ray Milland as the cat’s financial manager).

Why does this all-but-forgotten novel (and the movie, which may actually be better than the book) come to mind now? Because of the growing popularity of “pet trusts,” and as an opportunity to discuss how one might plan for taking care of the pets who survive the owner’s death. We are NOT planning on a discussion about what it might mean if “Rhubarb” was the only child-appropriate book on a grandmother’s bookshelf in, say, the late 1950s.

So you have two cats (Max and Chloe) and a dog (Molly), and you feel very strongly about them. You want to make sure that they are taken care of after your death — even though you recognize that you will likely outlive them. In any case, you would almost certainly have other pets, and you know that they will be very important to you when you are looking at the proverbial endgame. What can you do to provide for Max, Chloe and Molly, and what should you do?

There are a number of mechanisms our clients consider for dealing with their pets. In roughly increasing order of complexity, they include:

Identifying who will take custody of the pets. Probably the most common arrangement we see is something like this: “I direct that any pets I may own at the time of my death should be given to my brother Dave, who has promised that he will care for them.” Please make sure Dave knows he is identified in this way, and you probably should have a backup choice (just like you do for guardianship of your minor children, and for identifying your trustee).

Involving a pet-oriented non-profit. Some organizations offer placement programs for pets after the owner’s death. You might want to make specific reference to a program you are familiar with, and include a donation to allow the organization to effectively make a placement for an elderly, ill or special-needs pet (remember that your pet’s condition is likely to decline between now and your death).

Providing for a stipend. We frequently see one of two variations here. Either “I leave the sum of $x,000 to my sister Diana, on condition that she takes custody of all of my pets and agrees to care for them” or “I leave the sum of $x,000 to my veterinarian Dr. Whisperer, who has agreed to use some or all of those funds to help arrange for placement of my beloved Max, Chloe and Molly (and any other pets I may own at the time of my death) in suitable homes.” Again, make sure your intended recipient is aware of the arrangement and willing to take it on, and plan for a backup (Dr. W is planning on selling his veterinary practice within the next five years, you know).

Making more elaborate arrangements for pets. Occasionally we have clients who have given a lot of thought to what their pets’ lives will look like after the client’s death. We have drafted a number of specific arrangements, from giving directions about the kind of care (food, grooming, living arrangements) to providing a home for the person who keeps the pets. These arrangements do not quite rise to the next level of complexity, since they are not formal “pet trusts” — but they can be as tailor-made and as complicated as the client’s needs and imagination.

Pet trusts. This is a topic of considerable interest in recent years, though it has been (in our experience) much more talked about than implemented. Pet trusts have actually been around for centuries (look for the legal term “honorary trusts”), but local laws have often made them unenforceable. In the last two decades or so, many jurisdictions have formally approved the idea: Rhubarb would be proud.

But a pet trust is a much more complicated and expensive thing to create — and administer — than the other, less formal arrangements. For that reason most of our clients, though they may be intrigued by the idea, opt instead to use one of the more casual approaches described above. That said, if you feel strongly that care of your pet is one of the most important items your estate plan needs to consider, you should be thinking about a pet trust.

Will a pet trust work in Arizona? Yes (here’s the Arizona statute allowing pet trusts). If you don’t live in Arizona, ask your local attorney about the concept. And be advised: pet trusts are subject to some oversight that is different from other trusts. For instance: the amount you leave to a pet trust can be reduced if a court thinks it’s excessive (that’s what happened with Trouble, Leona Helmsley’s dog).

Can you get a pet trust on the internet? After all, your situation can not be unique — millions of people with beloved pets must be thinking about the same thing. Our answer: yes, you can get a straightforward pet trust from the internet, and it will probably be legal in Arizona. But it will not be integrated into your estate plan, and might in fact directly conflict. It may affect the other distributions you intend to make. If your pet is going to be your sole beneficiary it might work better — but then there are the problems of trust administration, and your pet’s trustee will probably end up paying more in legal fees than if you developed a relationship with a lawyer during your life (and customized your pet’s trust to the terms you really want to cover).

What about the possibility that Molly, Max and Chloe might not survive you? Whatever arrangements you make for pets should probably be generic — rather than providing for those three pets by name, you probably want to include any pets you might have at death. And don’t forget: your pet desert tortoise and parrot might very well outlive you — and they therefore might require more careful planning.

Is there anything else you should do? Yes, at least one thing. Let the person who will be taking care of the pets know about their job, and let the person who will be handling the rest of your estate know, too. Immediate care of your pets is one of the most important things your family will need to deal with upon your death or incapacity.

Where can you get more information? We quite liked this common-sense analysis from the Humane Society of the United States.

We hope this helps. Please give our regards to Molly, Max and Chloe.

What To Do When a Family Member or Loved One Dies


Obviously, the death of a family member or close friend will be an emotionally charged moment. Most of us only have to endure the process a handful of times in our entire lives. That means we may be ill-prepared for what needs to be addressed, and extremely distracted and even vulnerable at the very time we need to be at our best.

There are a few legal matters that need to be dealt with, and a myriad of practical issues. Family and friends must be notified, an obituary notice prepared, and funeral arrangements made (or simply implemented, if the decedent was organized enough to have made advance arrangements). Here are a few others to be dealt with right away:

  • Pets need to be taken care of. Will someone in the family take responsibility for the cat? She needs to be attended to right away — she should not be left in the house alone, frightened and without adequate food and water.
  • Is security at the decedent’s home a concern? Someone should be detailed to turn lights on and off, pick up (and cancel) newspapers and collect the mail every day. Locks may need to be changed, especially if there have been caretakers, neighbors and repair workers in and out of the home.
  • The refrigerator needs to be cleaned out, dishes done and put away, and the house generally looked after. If those tasks are left for later, all sorts of problems can arise.
  • Mail should be forwarded, but it may not be possible to accomplish that until someone has been formally appointed as Personal Representative of the decedent’s estate. In the meantime, someone can pick up the mail daily while checking on the house.
  • Start a log and/or spreadsheet to show all expenditures and time spent on the decedent’s affairs. Even if you do not intend to seek payment later, it may be important to have this information collected — and it is much harder to recreate it later.
  • Arrange for a visit to the safe deposit box. In Arizona the bank is no longer required to impound the box’s contents, but it may be that no one is a signer on the box — or that the key can not be located. Look for information about the safe deposit box, and the key, among the decedent’s papers and personal possessions.
  • Cut up and return credit cards in the decedent’s name. It is not legal to use them, so there’s no need to keep them around. Do not be tempted to charge funeral expenses or other urgent bills on the credit cards.

What’s missing from this list? Call the lawyer. We don’t want to intimate that we think calling for legal counsel is unimportant (hey, we’re a law office, after all). In most cases, though, it is not among the first things that need to be done. It is probably not necessary to meet with the attorney immediately, but it may well take several days to get an appointment and in the meantime you might be able to get at least some guidance by telephone — so an early call is good, but perhaps not the most important item on your list.

Your circumstances may be different, of course. Perhaps there is a relative who is trying to remove valuable personal property without proper authority. Maybe your loved one lived in a rental unit, and security, cleaning and pets are not a concern. One item, at the head of every list, should be universal: breathe. That is, take a deep breath, ask for assistance from family and friends (most will be happy to pitch in, even if they were not related to, or close to, the decedent), and remember that it is permissible — and even laudable — to grieve as you work through the tasks that must be accomplished.

This is a short list of the most urgent steps to take. In another newsletter we’ll suggest some others, and even provide a checklist.

Want to Leave Your Estate to Fido? Now You Can!


Modern life sometimes seems to be hectic, impersonal and detached. The elderly, particularly, often find themselves isolated by chronic health problems or other limitations, distant relatives and a shrinking circle of friends. Small wonder that pets often become central to the lives of their elderly .

Many pet owners are deeply concerned about the care their closest companions will receive if they survive their elderly owners. The idea of leaving some portion of an estate for the purpose of caring for the surviving pet or pets is not new, but seems to have taken on increased urgency in recent years.

Although it has always been legally possible to leave money for the benefit of pets, recent changes in Arizona law (mirrored by developments in other states) have made it easier to do so. Since changes by the Arizona legislature in 1995, it has been legally permissible to simply create a trust for the benefit of a pet.

Trusts for pets are not an entirely new phenomenon. Stories of substantial estates being left “to” cats or dogs have been told for decades. In one notable Tucson case from the middle of this century, a local attorney was charged with personally benefiting from his role as manager of an estate left to a much loved dog. In his defense he argued, for example, that the dog enjoyed and could afford riding in a luxury car. That and similar stories point out the most serious limitation of pre-existing law–since the pets are not (usually, anyway) in a position to monitor the behavior of their caretakers or report abuses, trusts for pets were often a ripe opportunity for the greedy or unscrupulous.

The new law attempts to reduce the risk of such abuses. It specifically permits trusts for pets to be recognized and managed (where necessary) by the courts, and permits court proceedings to be brought by “any person.” It also creates a set of strong presumptions about the intentions of the person leaving money to the pet, and prohibits the trustee/manager of the funds from personally benefiting (except by payment of reasonable fees for services actually rendered).

The law permits trusts only for the benefit of “domestic or pet” animals. That almost seems like a challenge: can you create a bequest to an exotic animal companion who falls into neither category?

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