Pet trusts offer animal lovers peace of mind

 (ARA) – Jerry and Judi Wilkerson love their bulldog, Lulu Bell – so much so that they decided to set up a pet trust.

“My parents have passed away, and I don’t have a lot of family, so we wanted to make sure Lulu Bell was taken care of no matter what happened,” explained Jerry.  “It actually relieved a lot of stress. At least we know we have set aside a little bit of money, some instructions and there is a person willing to take care of her.”

Many pet owners assume that they will outlive their beloved pets, but that isn’t always the case. Unfortunately, when animals get left behind, they sometimes wind up in a local humane society where they could be euthanized. A pet trust ensures the animal will continue to receive care and housing even after the death of the pet’s human companion.

The Wilkerson’s pet trust includes about $2,000, simple instructions for care, and entrusts the animal to a cousin who already loves Lulu. The money is primarily to help cover any large expenses that Lulu might incur, like veterinary bills, after the Wilkerson’s deaths.

“It’s interesting to note that very few states allowed pet trusts until 1990. Since then the concept has really taken off, and now more than 42 states allow pet trusts, including three states that passed legislation in 2009. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were allowed in all 50 states ultimately,” says Adrian Hochstadt, assistant director of State Legislative and Regulatory Affairs at the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA).

“Today, pet trusts are still relatively unusual in practice – most people choose to will a pet to a trusted family member,” he says. “Pet trusts are one of the fastest growing segments of animal law today.”

Pet trusts can vary according to a person’s needs, and most pet trust laws allow people to will a certain amount of money toward the care of their pet after they are gone.

Dennis advises that veterinarians should be made aware of trusts when they treat an animal. If a pet is covered by a trust, it’s the trust that will likely be paying the bill and the trust also may stipulate what kind of veterinary care the animal should receive.

Dennis also notes that bequests that haven’t been carefully drafted and, for example, leave exorbitant sums of money to a dog or cat, could be subject to legal challenges. People may argue that excessively large trusts are a sign a person was not mentally competent at the time the trust was drafted.

“Many state’s pet trust laws include provisions that allows the courts to reduce a pet trust to a reasonable amount if it’s excessive,” says Linscott R. Hansen, an Illinois attorney who helped draft the Illinois pet trust law, which passed in 2004. “I advise people interested in setting up a pet trust to put into a trust just what the pet needs, and that’s enough.”

Hanson explains that pet trust acts allow people to create a trustee to oversee funds and another to care for the animal, which is a good way to help ensure the proper care of the animal. Dennis adds it may be a good idea to include a clause requiring two veterinarians to separately determine when a pet covered by a trust should be euthanized, and perhaps leave any remaining funds in a trust to a charity after the pet’s death.

Michael Cathey, head of the American Veterinary Medical Foundation (AVMF), said that his charitable organization does receive bequests from animal lovers who want a part of their estate to go toward protecting and treating pets. The AVMF funds disaster response efforts for pets, veterinary scholarships and animal health studies, and donors can and do bequest their donations to specific programs. For example, if a dog owner lost a dog to cancer, they may elect to bequest some money to the AVMF to go toward animal health studies, Cathey explains.

“A donor’s wishes are always honored as long as those wishes fit in well with one of our programs,” Cathey says. “If we accept a gift, we will put that money toward whatever program the donor has requested. We’re really trying to help people understand that this option is available to them.”

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