No One Loves Your Pet Like You Do

From the day you bring your pet home, they are a member of the family. No one is better at cheering you up and loving you unconditionally. Whether your pet is finicky or easygoing, no one knows their favorite foods and personality quirks like you do. Thankfully, establishing a pet trust ensures that your constant companion is always loved and cared for.

Whether your best friend has fur, feathers, or scales, an attorney can help you develop a plan to provide for your pet in the event of your incapacity or death. Pet trusts exist for this purpose, and can be customized according to your pet’s needs. Like any other type of trust, pet trusts are legal agreements between the person who establishes the trust, called the grantor, settlor, or trustor and the person who holds the assets in the trust, the trustee. Typically, after a pet trust is established, the grantor places a set sum of money in the trust at regular intervals to fund it. Upon the grantor’s death or incapacity, the trustee makes regular payments from the trust funds to the pet’s designated caregiver for the rest of the pet’s life.

What Information Is Needed To Properly Establish A Pet Trust?

In order to be enforceable, pet trusts require grantors to disclose certain information about their pet and its intended living arrangements upon the owner’s death or incapacity. In particular, the grantor should:

  • Provide detailed identification for each pet included in the trust, including pictures, written description, and/or microchip or DNA information. It it also an option to specify the pets named in the trust using language like “the pets owned by me at the time of my illness or incapacity”.
  • Describe the standard of living that you expect the secondary guardian of your pet to uphold. This could include information about specialized food, medication, or treatments that they require, how often they get groomed or go outside for walks, what toys they are provided, or even that they should have regular play dates with their dog or cat friends. Grantors should be as precise as desired with their expectations for their pet’s care.
  • Designate how much money should be spent on your pet’s care, and stipulate how this money should be given to the pet’s secondary caregiver. The secondary caregiver can also be the named trustee of the pet trust, but does not have to be. This portion of the trust’s language should outline how much money the person entrusted with the pet’s care should receive to pay for related expenses, and how often they should receive this money. Typically, the amount designated for the pet’s expenses cannot be more than what is reasonable to uphold the standard of living you define in the trust.
  • Include provisions for how often your pet should go to the vet, and mandate the secondary guardian to regularly inspect the animal to make sure it is healthy. This is especially important if the pet is elderly or has medical conditions like diabetes.
  • Leave instructions for burial or cremation of your pet after their death. If you have pre-arranged burial or cremation services for your pet with their vet or another provider, you can list that information in this part of the trust. Otherwise, you can designate a portion of the trust’s funds for your pet’s end of life expenses.
  • Set aside funds for maintenance and administration of the trust. The fees associated with this vary by state.
  • Spell out what should be done with any funds remaining in the trust account after the pet’s final expenses have been paid. The leftover funds could support someone else, be donated to a charity of your choice, or be used any other way that you desire.

The specificity of the information required to establish a pet trust means that the grantor has a high degree of control over the trust’s creation, and over how a pet is cared for upon their owner’s death or incapacity. Because the trustee and secondary guardian are legally bound by the trust’s language, they are therefore obligated to follow instructions given in the trust, even if they may not personally agree with those instructions. This affords grantors a high degree of peace of mind in knowing that their pet will continue to be treated as they deserve.

Benefits Of Pet Trusts

  • 1. Highly Customizeable

    Pet Trusts allow grantors to control almost everything pertaining to how their pet is cared for. They are able to designate where and with whom the animal will live, what type of food they will eat, how often they will see a veterinarian, even where and how often they go on walks. This flexibility offers pet owners peace of mind that their pet will be cared for exactly as intend for the remainder of its life.

  • 2. Can Provide For Multiple Pets

    If a grantor has multiple pets, they are able to leave separate care instructions for each pet. This makes it possible to keep bonded pets together for the remainder of their lives, or make sure that each pet goes to someone who can care for them adequately. The specificity of the trust language means that, for example if a grantor has a dog and a cat, they can designate someone with a cat allergy as secondary caregiver for their dog, while their cat goes to a cat lover. Alternatively, if one pet has health conditions that another doesn’t, one one pet is picky while the other isn’t, the trust language can ensure that each pet gets the care they need.

  • 3. Allow For Lifelong Care

    In most states, including Wisconsin, pet trusts terminate only upon the death of the last surviving animal named in the trust. Other states allow the trust to exist for a maximum of 21 years or until the death of the last pet in the trust, whichever occurs first. Either case allows people to establish a trust for their pet with the knowledge that the pet will be well taken care of for the rest of its life, even if it outlives its original caretaker. This longevity component is especially meaningful if the animal companion has a long life expectancy, as is the case with horses or parrots. Establishing a trust removes the worry that a pet will be forgotten or sent to a shelter if they should outlive their owner. On the contrary, pet trusts ensure that your pet always has a loving home, and work to reduce the number of pets sent to shelters just because their owner has died.

  • 4. Funds Can Only Be Used For Pets

    Funds set aside in pet trusts are mandated for use for your pet’s care and other expenses, and misappropriation of these funds for a purpose not outlined in the trust’s terms can lead to severe penalties. This removes the worry that someone entrusted with the pet’s care would use the money in the trust for their personal expenses. Additionally, although the trustee and the pet’s designated caregiver can be the same person, this is not required. If the person who would take great care of your pet is prone to financial irresponsibility, you can name someone else as trustee. A trustee can only disburse funds to the pet’s caregiver according to terms that the grantor established when the trust was created, and would be penalized for unauthorized disbursements. This limitation prevents fraudulent expenditures of the trust’s assets.

  • 5. Legally Mandate A High Standard of Care

    As previously stated, those named in a pet trust are legally bound to its terms. Whether or not the trustee or designated caregiver agree with how the trust orders them to care for your pet, they must do so. This ensures that pets are always treated as their owners intend. The binding nature of a trust also means that grantors should exercise caution when choosing who to name as trustee and caregiver. Choosing someone who is trustworthy and has the time and space to adequately care for your pet greatly lessens the likelihood of sanctions for violation of the trust. Enforcing penalties for failing to fulfill legal obligations, even when warranted, are often expensive and time consuming for both the parties and the Court. Choosing a trustee and secondary owner who loves your pet almost as much as you do ensures that your wishes are executed seamlessly.


Can I Provide For My Pet In My Will Or Other Estate Planning Document?

In addition to establishing a Pet Trust, there are other several other options to ensure that your pet is cared for even if you should die or become incapacitated. Other alternatives include:

  • Life Trust: Creating a life trust for your pet enables you to designate a secondary caregiver for it. It also creates the opportunity to set aside a monetary gift for that caregiver which will only be disbursed if the standards of care you set forth are adhered to. If the secondary caregiver fails to adequately provide for the pet’s needs, they will not receive the intended monetary gift, which will instead be returned to the owner’s estate.
  • Last Will and Testament: Including a provision for your pet’s care in your will is another way to designate a caregiver for your pet if you are no longer able to provide care yourself. In addition to naming a caregiver, many pet owners also set aside an amount of money to be used for the pet’s expenses. Pet care provisions also allow the option to specify another caretaker for the pet who will assume care of the animal if the first caregiver listed in the will becomes unable or unwilling to fulfill their obligations. However, unlike with a pet trust or life trust, named caregivers are not mandated to adhere to any standard of care, and are only bound by a sense of morality or obligation to the pet or its owner.
  • Pet Protection Agreement: These are legally-binding agreements between the pet’s owner and one or more designated secondary caretakers. They are easy to complete, and are valid in all U.S. states. Because they are considered less formal than a trust, an attorney is not required to enter into or draft Pet Protection Agreements, although seeking counsel prior to signing can help ensure that the document is complete and correct. Pet Protection Agreements also do not require money be set aside by the owner for the pet’s expenses.
  • Rescue Organization: If you are unable to find someone to entrust with your pet’s care in your absence, speaking to the Humane Society or another rescue organization regarding their ability to take possession of an animal upon its owner’s death or incapacity is another alternative. Many organizations will allow pet owners to tour their lodging facilities and speak to staff about different programs offered. Once you have decided on a rescue to suit your pet’s needs and adhere to your guidelines for their care, the facility or an attorney can draft documentation to ascertain that your pet goes to live where you intend. The costs associated with lodging your pet until the end of its life vary between different organizations, so owners considering this option should look for a rescue whose facilities and fees are favorable given the finances available.

As with any legal planning method, the correct approach depends on your unique situation, and you should consult with an attorney to help you make the best decision for your pet’s continued welfare.

Isn't Creating A Trust For My Pet Excessive?

Making plans to ensure that your pet will be well cared for in event of your death or incapacity isn’t excessive at all. Rather, it safeguards your pet’s standard of living against any unexpected changes. Every year, thousands of pets are surrendered to shelters as a last resort when their owners die or are no longer able to adequately care for them. Therefore, using a trust or other instrument to ensure your pet’s continued quality of life when you are no longer able to advocate for them is an important aspect of any pet parent’s estate plan.

What Types Of Pet Trusts Can I Establish?

Because the structure and content of a trust are largely dependent on the grantor’s wishes, a trust created for the care of a pet can assume different forms. Pet trusts are different from other forms of legal trust, such as those created for the support of a surviving spouse or other relative. To be enforceable, traditional legal trusts must name a human beneficiary who is tasked with enforcing the terms of the trust. Because animals cannot enforce trust terms, they cannot be beneficiaries of trusts created for their benefit. Therefore, pet trusts include different wording and structure to guarantee that they are legally enforceable and accomplish the goals intended by the grantor. Depending on what these goals are, pet trusts can assume one of three main forms.

  • Statutory Pet Trust: Grantors designate someone to enforce the terms of this type of trust, thereby making sure that the money in the trust account is used for the pet’s expenses. This person is not considered the beneficiary of the trust, and also should not be the pet’s secondary caregiver. Instead, the pet can be named the direct beneficiary of a statutory pet trust. Then, when the grantor dies, the pet legally becomes “property” of the trust, and the trustee is considered its owner. If the grantor desires, they can also designate a caregiver for the pet other than the trustee.
  • Traditional Pet Trust: Also known as a Common Law Pet Trust, traditional pet trusts enable an owner to designate a caregiver for their pet, and set aside funds to be used for the pet’s expenses. Upon the grantor’s death or incapacity, the caregiver receives disbursements of the trust’s funds at predetermined intervals from a designated trustee. Traditional pet trusts afford owners a lot of control over their pet’s continued care, as the caregiver and trustee are legally bound by the terms set forth in the the trust. The grantor can include language in the trust to specify anything from what kind of food the pet should eat to how often it should receive veterinary care to where the pet’s remains should be placed. While these trusts allow owners to dictate their expectations for almost every aspect of their pet’s care, it should be noted that the Court has the jurisdiction to declare a traditional pet trust unenforceable should it deem that the amount of money in the trust is unreasonable.
  • Honorary Trust: As its name suggests, these trusts are established in honor of some noncharitable, nonhuman entity. Honorary trusts allow grantors to conditionally bequest their pet’s care, along with funding for its expenses, to a designated person for the remainder of the pet’s life. Contingent on their proper care of the pet, the secondary owner would receive a predetermined gift of money or another asset from the grantor’s estate. However, because honorary trusts do not require a beneficiary, and because many states do not have statutes authorizing them for use as pet trusts, many Courts will rule that honorary trusts established for the care of companion animals are unenforceable.
  • As with any trust or estate planning document, counsel is vital in ensuring that a pet trust’s terms are reasonable and properly documented. Speaking with an attorney prior to developing a plan for the continued care of an animal ascertains that your pet’s health and happiness is safeguarded for the rest of its life.

    How Much Money Should I Leave For The Care Of My Pet?

    While every pet owner wants to provide adequate resources to make sure that their pet is cared for, the amount of funds to allocate for a pet’s care varies from one situation to the next. Since most states allow pet owners to designate fund disbursements for anticipated expenses through the end of the pet’s life, owners must first consider their pet’s expected lifespan. Many factors affect an animal’s longevity, including breed, age, and health. For example, it wouldn’t make sense to leave the same amount in trust for care of an elderly dog that you would for a young parrot. Additionally, as pets age the cost associated with their care often increases, as elderly pets are more likely to require medication, specialized treatments like dental extractions, and high-quality food.

    Other breed-specific factors might also affect how much money should be designated for pets’ expenses. Pre-existing health conditions, for example, might prompt an owner to leave more in trust for related expenses, such as specialty food or frequent vet visits. Or, in another scenario, the owner of a long-haired animal might opt to set aside money for regular grooming appointments that the owner of a short-haired pet wouldn’t have to allow for.

    While it is impossible to know exactly how much money to allocate for your pet’s future expenses, an attorney can can help you determine how much money you should realistically set aside, as well as the best way to include provisions for pet care and expenses in your estate planning documents. It should also be noted, that even affluent pet owners should plan to speak with an attorney about planning for their pet’s needs, as the Court has the jurisdiction to decide that a bequest to an animal or its caregiver is unreasonable given the anticipated cost of the pet’s care.

    Can I Name Different People To Care For Each Of My Pets?

    One benefit of pet trusts and other estate planning documents allowing for pet care is that owners have the ability to specify different caregivers for each of their pets if they wish to do so. While some “sibling” pets are bonded and should go to the same caregiver upon their owner’s death or incapacity so as not to cause undue anxiety, others would be indifferent to being separated or would even prefer it. Because of the flexibility of pet trusts, owners have the ability to lay out their expectations for each pet’s living arrangements, and can also specify separate care instructions for each pet that secondary owners are mandated to follow.