What Happens to Me If Something Happens to You?

Hotel mogul and billionaire Leona Helmsley, who died in August 2007, caused quite a stir when she left a trust fund worth $12 million for the benefit of her Maltese dog, Trouble. A court ultimately found the amount excessive and reduced it to a much more reasonable $2 million.

If you are anything like me, your pets are not just animals, but rather members of your family. You may want to ensure that they are provided for in some manner following your death, but you also are not an eccentric billionaire with millions of dollars to throw around, and thus do not know where to start.

Thankfully, there is a middle ground: The State of Michigan authorizes the use of a “pet trust” to provide for one’s pet(s) following death. A pet trust can specify a caretaker for the pet(s), the manner in which the pet(s) should be cared for, and how to handle multiple pets. Given that conversations surrounding care for a pet following the owner’s death are often not enforceable, a pet trust is useful for an owner who wants to ensure that his or her pet is provided for to his or her standard.

A pet trust can be either a completely standalone trust, or embedded within your living trust agreement (or will); you should discuss with your estate planning attorney which choice makes the most sense for you.

Key Components of a Pet Trust

  • Identification of pets: Pets can be identified either individually or as a group
  • General care of pets: You should include instruction to the caretaker, either within the trust document itself or through the use of a letter of instruction, for such matters as a pet’s preferred food, medications, veterinary information, etc.
  • Fiduciaries:
    • Caretaker: You will need to name a caretaker to take your pet(s) into his or her home and be responsible for your pet(s)’s day-to-day needs, as well as determine whether s/he will receive compensation from the trust
    • Trustee: You will also need to name a trustee to manage the funds of the trust; this person may be the same as or different from the caretaker
  • End of life matters: You may wish to include instruction to the caretaker about the circumstances under which euthanasia should be considered, as well as how a pet’s body will be disposed of post-death
  • Funding of trust: You should consider the amount necessary for your trust to satisfy its terms, and you may wish to use such sources as cash, investments, life insurance, and/or pet insurance policies to provide for your pet(s)

In addition to a pet trust, you may want to consider a Durable Power of Attorney specific to caring for your pet(s) during your lifetime, if you are unavailable or become unable to do so yourself.

For more information on pet trusts or other estate planning questions, please contact Stephanie Myott-Beebe or any other member of the Rhoades McKee Estate Planning Team.