Oct 12, 2023
Estate Planning for Pets—A Primer on Pet Trusts
Recently, my wife and I embarked on updating our estate documents. With one child off to college and a second not too far behind, we felt it was appropriate to make sure our plan was updated in case something happened to us. During our conversation, my attention turned toward my third (and sometimes favorite) child—our family dog, Kylo. Kylo was 10 weeks old when we rescued him from a local shelter four years ago and he’s been a source of joy for our family. With that, we started talking about how to incorporate him into our plans via a pet trust.
The idea behind pet trusts
A pet trust is a legal entity established during life or at death to provide for the guardianship, care and expenses of a pet. Sometimes, a letter of instruction may suffice to guide an estate executor as to who should receive a pet, should it outlive its owner. That said, pets can be expensive. Just as we make sure we have adequate assets going into trust for the benefit of a child, we also may need to consider things like veterinary bills, food, caregivers and shelter or boarding for a pet. According to the American Pet Products Association, Americans spent $136.8 billion on their pets in 2022.1 Given that, there may need to be estate funds allocated to the trust to provide the guardian or trustee with resources to continue the pet’s care.
Beyond costs, one can get specific as to how the family pet should be cared for and maintained. Our dog requires a specific type of food related to an allergy that we’d want a future caregiver to know about. We also employ the services of a preferred dog walker for Kylo that we’d want maintained. Finally, we have a good relationship with his vet who knows him well and loves him as much as we do. Preparing a potential future owner with the right combination of financial resources and information can lead to an optimal outcome.
Optimizing your plan and getting creative
So, what is the downside to not planning ahead? For us, the thought of having Kylo end up back in a shelter as an adult dog was not a risk we were willing to take. We also didn’t see it as ideal to have our children having to care for him if they were in college. We identified a nearby family member who has a fenced yard and a dog of their own. They know him and he knows them, and this arrangement assures us that he’ll be cared for and loved should he outlive us.
We also identified an appropriate amount of trust funding based on current monthly expenses multiplied by his life expectancy. There is a low probability of Kylo outliving my wife and me given all of our respective ages and life expectancies. If that’s the case, what happens if he does outlive us by only a year or two with funds still in the trust? We determined the residual of his trust assets would be directed to the shelter that we adopted him from as a charitable donation. While we could have the potential residual directed back to our children or other beneficiaries, we felt compelled to provide a gift in his memory should the circumstances arise.
Planning for pets is more important for seniors
As we get older, our runway shortens, and each birthday brings us closer to our ultimate life expectancy. While we may not think about incorporating a pet into our estate plan while we are in our 30s or 40s, we most certainly should if we are in our 70s or older.
That should not, however, dissuade retirees from pet ownership. Studies have shown that pets improve both mental and physical well-being. Walking a dog or maintaining a feeding schedule for a cat can provide exercise, purpose and vital companionship. As we would with any other family member, we simply want to plan ahead for the care of that pet in the event of our death or disability.
Estate planning can be complex and require making difficult decisions. It is important to consider the pets in our lives who may need care if we predecease them. Consulting a qualified attorney and discussing your goals with your wealth advisor is a great place to start.
For more information on pet trusts, check out the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals® (ASPCA®) website at www.aspca.org/pet-care/pet-planning.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
James Ciprich, CFP®, MBA
Jim is a Partner, Wealth Advisor and Investments Leader in our Morristown, NJ, office. Serving a broad range of clients, he has a particular focus on retirees considering care and housing options. Jim founded legacy firm RegentAtlantic’s Senior Solutions practice specialty. He is often asked to speak at retirement communities and client events and is frequently quoted in the media. Jim also serves on an advisory council to the MIT AgeLab. He holds the CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ certification and has an MBA and a BA in Economics from Rutgers University. He served as an adjunct professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University in the CFP® program. Jim is a past president of his local estate planning council, and he has also served as a trustee for Morristown United Methodist Church. In recent summers, he has volunteered with Appalachia Service Project. In a prior career, Jim worked in the music industry, where he was awarded multiple RIAA-certified gold and platinum albums.
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