THE FACTS: My mother has a dog, Fido, who means the world to her. When it comes to Fido, money is no object. She is very concerned about what will happen to Fido when she dies. Not only does she worry about who will care for Fido but also about who will pay for Fido’s care.
THE QUESTION: Should these issues be addressed in her will?
THE ANSWER: While the long-term care of Fido can be addressed in her will, your mother needs to make arrangements for Fido’s care for the period immediately following her death because the provisions of her will are not effective until the will is probated. That could take some time.
I always suggest that pet owners arrange in advance for someone to take care of their pet in the event they are unable to do so either because of disability or death. It is important that a caregiver is identified and is ready and willing to take the pet on relatively short notice. These temporary arrangements need not be in writing unless the owner feels that people are going to fight over who will care for the pet.
For example, if you and your siblings agree with your mother that Mary will take care of Fido, there is no need to put the arrangement in writing. However, if all of you want to take care of Fido, your mother should put her wishes in writing to avoid conflicts.
As for the long-term care of Fido after your mother’s passing and the cost of that care, I suggest that your mother include in her will a pet trust. When thinking about the provisions to include in the pet trust, your mother should not only consider who will care for Fido for the rest of his life but also whether the appointed caregiver has the resources to cover the costs associated with pet ownership.
Even if money is not an issue for the caregiver, your mother should confirm in advance that the caregiver’s living arrangements are suitable for Fido. Some apartment buildings and residential communities do not permit residents to own pets. If the caregiver of choice lives in such a community, or lives in a setting that is not large enough for Fido, your mother should consider naming someone else to adopt Fido after her death.
Once she has settled on a caregiver, your mother should think about the types of care she wants Fido to receive after she is gone. For example, does she want Fido groomed once a month or to have his teeth cleaned three times a year? Does she want Fido to be fed certain types of food? Does Fido suffer from any ailments that require medication or close monitoring? If so, these things should be addressed in the pet trust. If your mother has been using the same groomer and vet for years, she may want the caregiver to continue using the same providers. This is particularly important if Fido is receiving any specialized care or treatment. If this information is not included in the pet trust itself, your mother definitely should provide this information to the caregiver in a letter.
While the reason for including a pet trust in her will is to ensure that Fido will be cared for after she dies, it can also serve as a vehicle for providing the caregiver with instructions with respect to the handling of Fido’s remains after he dies. This information is important and useful to the caregiver who will certainly want to honor your mother’s wishes.
In addition to setting forth in the pet trust the name of the caregiver and the type of care she wants Fido to receive, both during his lifetime and upon death, your mother will need to allocate a certain amount of money to the trustee of the pet trust.
The job of the trustee is to distribute the funds in the trust to the caregiver as needed to be used for Fido’s benefit. The money will be used to pay for Fido’s food and care, but your mother can also allocate some of the money in the trust directly to the caregiver in recognition of the time, effort and responsibility he/she assumed by caring for Fido. If she wants, your mother can name the caregiver as trustee of the pet trust. She need not name two different people for these roles.
A final decision that your mother will have to make in connection with the pet trust is what happens to any of the funds left in the trust after Fido dies. Many people who have a pet trust direct that any money left in the trust after the death of their pet goes to the caregiver. Another popular arrangement is for the money to be donated to an organization that cares for abandoned and/or abused animals. Of course, your mother can also have the funds left in the pet trust divided between you and your siblings. Regardless of how she wants the funds distributed, it is important to include her wishes in the pet trust.
In light of the number of issues, your mother should discuss if she wants to create a pet trust, and the fact that it will be part of her will, with an experienced estate planning attorney. That is the best way to ensure that Fido will be cared for in accordance with her wishes.
Linda M. Toga, Esq. provides legal services in the areas of estate planning, probate, estate administration, litigation, wills, trusts, small business services and real estate from her East Setauket office.