Actually 46 states now allow pet trusts, including South Carolina, but you can’t leave monies and assets directly to the pet. A decade ago only 4 states allowed pet trusts.
In December of 2011, 94-year-old Italian heiress Maria Assunta, who had no living relatives, left her entire estate valued at over $13,000,000 to “Tomasso”, a four-year-old black cat she found wandering in the streets of Rome. Assunta named her nurse Stefania as trustee for Tomasso in her will, and the cat reportedly became the third richest animal on the planet – behind a chimp and a German shepherd. In 2007 real estate tycoon Leona Helmsley left $12 million of her multi-billion dollar estate to her pet, a dog named Trouble, and expressly excluded her grandchildren in her will. And Woman’s Day magazine once reported that Oprah Winfrey will leave $30 million for the benefit of her pets, which includes five dogs. As a result of these and similar stories, some have come to consider pet trusts as planning tools for the ultra rich or eccentric, but many rational people of modest means love animals and consider their pets part of the family.
With all the purring, tail-wagging-welcomes, companionship, play, love, protection and related health benefits pets provide to their owners is it any surprise we want to ensure Mittens and Fido are cared for after one’s admission to a nursing home or an owner’s death. Some studies have shown up to 50% of Americans now provide in some way for a pet in their will.
Of course an open or prearranged adoption by a family member or friend is an inexpensive alternative to an actual pet trust.
Pet trusts are fairly traditional in structure, with a designated human or corporate trustee and a trust protector that ensures the animal actually receives the intended benefits. The trust may be testamentary or inter vivos which means they can be created in a will or while the settlor, the one who creates and contributes property or funding to the trust, is still alive. The latter may be part of or an amendment to an existing revocable or living trust. Under South Carolina law the pet must be clearly identified and be alive or in gestation at the time the trust is created, but an additional animal may be added to a trust if done so prior to the settlor’s death. A pet trust terminates on the death of the animal or last surviving animal. Before meeting with your lawyer you should determine your pet’s standard of living – exercise and nutritional needs, veterinary checkups schedule and shots, etc. and estimate the cash and/or assets needed to cover these expenses for a typical life span of your pet. You may also want to decide how the body of your pet will be handled at the time of passing – cremation, burial, a pet cemetery, etc. You should choose a beneficiary to receive any remaining funds that are not used up by the pet trust.
You may also want to consider making a generous contribution to an animal welfare project in your will. In 2011 Daniel J. Garr, an urban planner and Professor at San Jose State University left $50,000 to Project Purr, an allvolunteer feral cat advocacy organization, to fund the neutering of cats. There are wonderful South Carolina nonprofit organizations that provide animal rescue, medical care, feeding, spay and neutering, adoption, pet care education and other services to domestic animals. These programs often rely exclusively on donations and volunteers. Some operate second-hand shops where your gently used household goods and clothing can help an abandoned or abused pets.
For additional information check out The Humane Society’s website which offers a free five page booklet you can download on how to provide for your pet’s future when extended illness or accident would affect your ability to care for your pet as well as addressing an owner’s death.
i “Woman leaves $13M Fortune to Pet Cat” (Dec. 12, 2011, http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/headlines/2011/12/woman-leaves-13mfortune-to-pet-cat/.
ii “Oh Leona!” (Aug. 1, 2008, http://wealthmanagement.com/litigation/oh-leona-0).
Disclaimer: Information contained in this column is meant to be of general information on frequently asked questions concerning disability, elder law, estate planning and probate law, and does not contain specific legal advice to a client. No attorney-client relationship is created by reading this column.