Q. I’ve been told I have a terminal condition and want to make arrangements for my pets. What can you tell me about pet trusts in South Carolina?
A. With all the tail-wagging-welcomes, purring and petting, 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 on an owner’s death. In 2016 Minnesota became the fiftieth state to allow pet trusts. Just over a decade ago only 4 states allowed them. Studies have shown up to 50% of Americans now provide in some way for a pet in their will.
There are of course different kinds of arrangements you can make for your pets short of a formal trust, like prearranged adoption by a family member or friend. The key is to ask friends, family and animal adoption programs in advance and give good directions that can be found in a crisis. This may include a letter of instruction to the agent named in your power of attorney or detailed information in your will. While my friend missed her beloved dogs she made arrangements six months prior to her death for adoption of her pets because she couldn’t personally care for them during lengthy hospital stays and with her limited strength after cancer treatments. It gave her piece of mind to know the dogs were loved and cared for in new homes.
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. In South Carolina you can not leave funds and other assets directly to the pet. The trust may be testamentary or inter vivos which means they can be created in a will or while the settlor, the person 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 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 as a beneficiary to a trust if done so prior to the settlor’s incompetency or death. A pet trust terminates on the death of the last surviving animal.
Before meeting with your lawyer you should determine if you want to create the trust now or in your will. You also need to consider your pet’s standard of living – exercise and nutritional needs, veterinary checkups schedule and shots, etc. and then 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 person, non-profit or other beneficiary to receive any funds that are not used up by the pet trust. If you have a fairly large sum in mind to fund the trust, then I strongly suggest you make sure funds are not distributed lump sum, but over a period of time. Additionally, the proposed Pet Guardian should sign accepting responsibility as part of the document.
Real estate tycoon Leona Helmsley left $12 million of her multi-billion dollar estate to her pet, a dog named Trouble, but neither person she named as trustee wanted the dog or responsibility.[i] 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 consider pet trusts as planning tools for the ultra rich or eccentric, but many rational people of modest means love their animals and consider their horses, dogs, cats and birds part of the family. Depending on the age of your pet, its health and other factors a few hundred to a few thousand dollars can go a long way. There are several ways to fund trusts. Your attorney can best assist you with your legal planning options.
A fairly large number of my clients name organizations that engage in animal rescue, medical care, operate no kill shelters, provide feeding, spay and neutering, and adoption programs to either receive a small percentage of their estates or direct that those gently used household goods and clothes the family does not want be donated to second-hand shops operated by these programs. These programs often rely exclusively on donations and volunteers. Even our so called junk can change the life for one animal and the lucky person that gets to love a rescue pet.[i] “Oh Leona!” (Aug. 1, 2008, http://wealthmanagement.com/litigation/oh-leona-0).