A well-done estate plan takes care of those you love most: partners, spouses, children, and friends. But what about your beloved bunny, dog, cat, hamster, or parrot? How do you plan for their lifelong care and protection? Often, people's wills designate someone to take care of their pets. But what if you also want to leave behind money (say, $5,000) for your beloved rabbit, Bunny, for her lifetime care?
Because animals are not legally able to own money or property, you couldn't make a direct gift of $5,000 to Bunny. (Imagine a rabbit trying to open up a checking account!) So people who want to leave money for the care of an animal generally do one of two things.
The first, and simplest, way is to leave the money as a gift to your friend Bob in your will, along with a request that he use it for the lifelong care of Bunny. Upon your death, your executor, Rachel, would make this gift to Bob. Bob is now the owner of the $5,000. He has a moral obligation to use it for Bunny because you asked that he do so, but he doesn't have a legal duty to do so. If Bob instead uses his new windfall to take a trip around the world, no one can sue him to return the money to Bunny or to provide for Bunny's care. If you don't state what should happen to any money left over after Bunny dies, Bob would keep it.
The second, and more complicated, way to provide for Bunny would be to establish a pet trust. Pet trusts are now valid in nearly all states, though states differ in the details of what they allow and forbid. To check if pet trusts are valid in your state, check with your local Humane Society or go to Estateplanningforpets.org.
Think of a trust (pet or otherwise) as a gift with strings attached. Legally, a trust is an agreement between a person contributing money or property (the grantor), a person who will manage and distribute that money (the trustee), and the person (or, in this case, pet) who will use the money (the beneficiary). The trust agreement spells out what the money can be used for and how it should be distributed. Pet trust laws make it possible to create trusts that benefit an animal, not a person. If your state has one, Bunny can have her own Bunny Trust.
The money in the Bunny Trust can be used for the care of Bunny and for her expenses, such as food and medical care. Your trust should, at a minimum, spell out:
- who the manager of the trust would be
- who should take over if your first choice can't do so
- who would take care of Bunny
- how to identify Bunny
- what kind of care she would need, and
- what to do with any money left over after Bunny dies.
Depending on how your state's pet trust law works, if Bob doesn't use the money for Bunny's care as directed, a person named in your trust to enforce it, or possibly a person appointed by a court, could sue Bob to enforce its terms.To learn more about pet trusts, pick up a copy of Every Dog's Legal Guide: A Must-Have Book for Your Owner by Mary Randolph, J.D. (Nolo).