The Kids Are OK – And So Are Your Pets

For many folks, our pets are like members of the family. You can't imagine something bad happening to them. But what happens if you pass on before they do? Just like making plans for human children, it's possible to make provisions for the care and wellbeing of your animals as well.

On October 1, 2009, HB 149 established the right for pet owners in Maryland to create a trust for their pets. This trust is intended to be used solely for the care of the animals included in the trust documents. How "care" is defined is typically taken to mean reimbursement to the caretaker (who would not be the trustee) for ordinary costs, such as food, treats, appropriate toys, and routine vet care, as well as extraordinary costs, such as atypical or emergency vet bills. This ensures that whomever is caring for your pet after you're gone is able to take on the animal without undue financial hardship as well. Interestingly, because a pet is not your lineal descendant, under Maryland law, the bequest is subject to inheritance tax.

Just as when setting up trusts for your children, there are some important questions to consider.

Who Will Care For Your Pet?

If you were no longer able to give the same level of care to your pet as you are now, who would be able to emulate this? Who of your friends or family would best be able to care for your pet for the next decade (or more)? And finally, who would be able to make the difficult decisions if it should become medically necessary to put the pet to sleep?

Chances are, you already have in mind someone who you would like to care for your animals if you are no longer able to do so. Have a conversation with them to explore the possibility and discuss options, and ask questions. It can sometimes be helpful to play the "what if" game and ask them about difficult scenarios to get a feel for how they would make decisions for your pet's care.

If there is no one in your family or friends who is willing or able, or whom you would consider to be suitable, what would you want to have happen then? Would you want your personal representative to contact a no-kill shelter or a rescue to ask them to find the pet a new home? It can be distressing to think over all of these possibilities, but necessary if you want to create a pet trust.

How Much Is Needed?

Another common question is how much you should leave to the trust for your pet's care. Some choose to leave a flat number of $5,000 or $10,000. Others leave a percentage.

To get an estimate, consider how much you typically spend in one year's time on your pet(s). Tally that number and then multiply by the number of years your pet could potentially live. If cared for well and in good health, many dogs can live between 10 and 15 years on average, and cats can sometimes approach 20 years. Horses can live well beyond 20 years, and some will approach 30 or 35. You want to make sure there's enough in the trust to provide care for the rest of the pet's life, if possible.

A trust created specifically for the care of your pets is generally the most advisable path; however, if that is not possible for any reason, it is still possible to bequeath any pets you may have along with a specific amount of money to a caretaker in your will. However, a trust holds more of a guarantee that your pet will be cared for as opposed to bequeathing animals and giving the potential caregivers funds outright.

If you have questions about pet trusts, contact an estate attorney to find out more.