Considering pets during estate planning is a growing trend since the media reported that Leona Helmsley left $12 million to her Maltese after her death in 2007 (the judge later reduced the amount to $2 million). To many people, a pet is more than just a pet – many consider their pet a friend or just another member of the family. Given the importance of this relationship, plans should be made for their future and funds should be designated to provide for their continuing care. Although a pet is legally considered property, they should be handled differently than a house, automobile, or other property.
Pet owners who want to include their pet(s) in estate planning should consider forming a pet trust. A pet trust is valid during the owner’s life, in case of incapacitation or illness, and after death. The trust will provide for the maintenance and care of the pet(s). A pet trust will include the designation of a caregiver who will care for the pet(s) and follow the instructions for care as outlined by the owner. The pet trust will also include a trustee who will oversee the funds in the trust that will cover the pets’ care. It is a good idea to include a successor caregiver and successor trustee in case the primary caregiver or trustee is unwilling or unable to serve.
Not all states have pet trust laws, but Tennessee enacted pet trust laws in 2004. The summary of the law is as follows: A trust may be created for the care of an animal or animals alive during the settlor’s lifetime. The trust terminates upon the death of the animal, or upon the death of the last surviving animal covered by the trust. However, the trust is not valid for more than 90 years.