Published February 19, 20194 min read
*Updated September 6, 2019. Looney Tune is a 35-year-old Amazon parrot who knows how to say "What's up, doc?" Gail Wang is his 59-year-old owner.
When doing the math recently, Wang realized her pet would probably outlive her: Parrots like Looney Tune can typically live as long as 80 years. Many pet owners face a similar problem: When they die, who will take care of their pets?
Wang contacted Rebecca Wrock, an associate attorney with Couzens Lansky who specializes in pet trusts. She created a trust that provides money for vet bills, boarding and toys. Wang has no children, so the trust provides a salary with built-in increases for Looney Tune's future caretaker.
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"What I wanted to do was, the longer he lives, the more money the caretaker gets to encourage the caretaker to keep him alive," Wang said. (Read more about how trusts work.)
Pet owners need to include pets in their end-of-life plans just like parents need a plan for their minor children, Wrock said. Many pet owners assume they'll outlive their pets, but that's not always the case.
Because the law considers animals as property, without proper planning, they basically get treated like furniture when their owners die. But dividing pets among heirs can prove difficult compared to furniture. Relatives might fight over who gets the pet, or worse, none of them might want it and it could end up in the already overwhelmed shelter system, Wrock said.
"That's the thing we're trying to avoid," she said.
To create a trust for Looney Tune, there were many things for Wang to figure out.
She had to figure out what the yearly cost for his care would be and how much to pay the caregiver, a plan B if the caregiver either couldn't or wouldn't take care of Looney Tune, which veterinarian he should go to, which veterinarian could give a second opinion in case the first recommended euthanizing Looney Tune and where the leftover money would go if Looney Tune died early (she chose the Michigan Humane Society).
A standalone pet trust is only one way to provide for your pets after you die, said Peggy Hoyt, a founding partner of estate planning firm Hoyt & Bryan and Animal Care Trust USA. You can grant power of attorney to a caretaker, or include care instructions in your own living trust. But standalone pet trusts with money and instructions for what happens if you die or become disabled are becoming more common, Hoyt said.
Identifying one or more caregivers is the first step for creating a plan for your pet. This can be a family member or friend willing to care for the pet, or an animal sanctuary or organization. You can also name backup caregivers or someone who can make sure the trust instructions are being carried out properly.
"One of the best things I like about the pet trust is you can control the succession of who can care for the animal," Wrock said.
If you don't want to take the step of creating a pet trust, you should at least write letters of instruction with basic information about your pets, including any dietary information. Having biographical and nutritional details could make it easier for a shelter adopt the pet out, Wrock said.
"That information is really important regardless if someone does some more formal planning," she said.
Hoyt encouraged pet owners to work with attorneys who are familiar with planning for pets.
"It's important for people to seek out like-minded pet-loving attorneys who have taken the time to educate themselves about the best way to protect pets," she said.
To find such an attorney, Hoyt suggested looking up your state bar association to see if it has an animal law section. If pet planning is a big area of their practice, most attorneys will advertise that fact.
Because pets are considered property, you can't name one as a beneficiary in your will or life insurance policy, said Patrick Hicks, legal counsel for Trust & Will. Instead, people can name a pet trust as a beneficiary. (Policygenius can help you compare prices for life insurance.)
Donna Cacchio, 51, is using a life insurance policy to fund a trust for her golden retriever Abbie. The trustee and caregiver is Cacchio's sister, who will inherit the money, Abbie and list of instructions for her care. Cacchio, a client of Hoyt's, has her own trust, but never thought about designing one for Abbie until her mother asked who would care for the dog if something happened to Cacchio.
"It never dawned on me that you would have to do it for your pets," Cacchio said.
Cacchio said she wanted to make sure Abbie would end up somewhere she liked.
"This is my child," she said. "I want to make sure she's OK. That's why it's important, because she's important."
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