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Trusts for Pets: Not Just for the Super-Wealthy

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There’s no shortage of fancy stuff wealthy folks can lavish on their pets: $20,000 dog houses, $9,000 cat condo towers, $3,000 mattresses studded with gold.

Notwithstanding such extravagances, making sure that clients’ beloved pets live in the style to which they’re accustomed after their owner’s death is an idea that’s practical, if not kind. This is easily accomplished by including the animals in clients’ estate plans.

For the affluent, a pet trust is the best way to go, as Jason Smolen, estate planning attorney and founding principal of SmolenPlevy, in Vienna, Virginia, tells ThinkAdvisor in an interview.

He recommends that financial advisors routinely ask whether such clients own a pet and if so, proceed to suggest a pet trust.

Prominent celebrities’ pets often, and famously, inherit millions. When designer Karl Lagerfeld died this past February, he reportedly left his white cat a jumbo portion of his $300 million-plus net worth.

Real estate mogul Leona Helmsley left $12 million to her dog and nothing to two of her grandchildren. Subsequently, a judge ruled for the grandkids to receive a total of $6 million of the dog’s intended windfall, which was cut to $2 million.

Oprah Winfrey is said to be leaving $30 million to her family of five golden retrievers and spaniels.

Pets live in 68% of U.S. households, according to the American Pet Products Association. That number has been increasing because, among other reasons, many couples without children have pets; and the acquisition of comfort and emotional support animals has been on the rise.

With a pet trust, the owner appoints a trustee to take care of the animal and sets aside a defined amount of money specifically for that purpose. Without such arrangement — or at least, a designated bequest in a will — the pet may wind up in a shelter and could be euthanized.

In our phone interview, Smolen, named a Trailblazer in Divorce, Trusts and Estates by the National Law Journal, discusses when to fund a pet trust, as well as some unusual animals to which his clients have left money. A tortoise, for example. Pet tortoises can live to be as old as 100 — in tortoise years, that is.

Here are excerpts from our conversation:

THINKADVISOR: Pets are indeed precious to their owners.

JASON SMOLEN: For many people, these animals are their kids. I hate to say it, but to some, they’re more important than their kids. They’ve become very integral to the family. There are many households now without children but with pets. And owners want to take care of them [after they die] just the way they would take care of their children.

Is leaving money for a pet’s care becoming more commonplace?

It’s a growing trend. You don’t have to be part of the 1% to start thinking about this. If you don’t make arrangements for their care, some of these animals end up in shelters or pounds and are euthanized.

But can’t you just trust that a friend or relative will take care of your pet after you’re gone?

Yes. But frequently it’s been found that the animals don’t necessarily fare that well. So I recommend to almost everybody to [provide for their pet’s care] in a will or trust, depending on their circumstances. With a trust, you create a sub-trust for the purpose of giving directions for a pet’s care. That’s why we’re seeing more and more people creating trusts for their pets.

My understanding is that if you say in a will, “I leave X amount of money to my dog Spot,” for example, it has no legal standing.

Right. You have to leave it to a trustee for the benefit of Spot.

How do you go about creating a pet trust?

First, the pet owner needs to make sure everything is all in place beforehand and, especially, that the trustee is established. The owner creates the trust while they’re alive, but the trust would not come into play until they die.

What does one need to consider when naming the caregiver?

The most important thing is choosing somebody that’s willing to take the job. You really do need to give thought to whom you give that job.

What’s the process used to fund the pet trust?

Typically, following the owner’s death, the money goes into the trust for the benefit of their pet. So you need to put aside enough money to make sure that the person you indicate to care for the pet — taking it to the vet and so on — isn’t burdened economically. While the pet is alive, that money must be dedicated to the care of the pet.

What happens if and when the animal dies and there’s some money left over?

It would go to the caretaker or a family member [who has been indicated].

Can pet owners fund a trust while they’re still alive?

Yes; but if they fund it then, to some degree they’re dispossessing themselves of that money.

How did you get into estate planning for pets?

You have to go where your clients take you. I make sure that we discuss whether they have pets and if so, what arrangements they want to make for them. Most say they have a good friend or family that will take care of them. But an increasing number say, “Gee, I didn’t think about that”; and then they decide to make very specific plans to be sure whoever will be taking care of their pet isn’t burdened economically.

Where do financial advisors come into this scenario? Should they put this topic on their list of questions to ask clients?

Yes. They should incorporate into their questions one on what their clients wish to do. Advisors assist with how much someone can reasonably set aside for a pet trust, which is typically a sub-trust within a trust.

Ever create pet trusts for clients with unusual animals?

There have been horses, ponies, snakes, tortoises. The owners care a great deal about their animals — and snakes and tortoises live a very long time.

Any odd requests for pet care?

Some people make very complicated arrangements and requirements. For example, they want their pets to stay in a certain place, such as a horse housed in a particular stable and to have vet care a specific number of times a year. So some people get a bit detailed.

The stable matters a great deal, then?

Yes. Some stables have a certain reputation, or clients want their horses to stay stabled where they are. They don’t want to disturb the animal’s life by having them moved. You could dedicate your house to the care of a pet, so that the pet stays there. But, of course, you need the caretaker to continue to do that.

Any instance of someone you’ve helped who didn’t want their pet moved?

I have a client that has somewhat of a menagerie and has made arrangements for all the pets to be cared for in place [at the client’s present home]. The caretaker could move in, and that would be paid for.

Do pet trusts ever stipulate the owner’s wishes for reproducing their animals?

The trusts are effective for the life of the pet that exists at the time the owner [creates the trust]. That’s because you don’t want someone taking care of your pet with a pretty good gig to be able to perpetuate it forever by just having more pets. The way the trusts are written, in most states, you can create a pet trust; but [the caretaker] is not meant to start a business out of those pets and run it under the guise of a trust.

What if the owner thinks their dog or cat is so cute that once they’re gone, they want the pet’s traits passed on for a couple of generations?

I’m sure that can be solved for. But it wouldn’t necessarily be through a pet trust. The law [says] the pet trust isn’t designed to be multigenerational.

Suppose a person clones their pet and wants to provide for the clone, or clones, once they die. What issues would that present?

If the clone is alive at the time they die, the trust is very able to handle that. But [after the person’s death], if the [caretaker] creates more animals or is breeding animals under his or her care, those animals aren’t covered by the trust. That’s running a business.

Barbra Streisand cloned her dog, who died at age 14. She now owns two Samantha clones: Miss Violet and Miss Scarlet. In establishing a pet trust, would she specify their care in the same way she would for Samantha were she still alive?

Correct. The [clones] are alive. She created them during her lifetime. They’re her children, so to speak. So they can be cared for under a trust.

Pets can certainly be valuable to their owners.

Right. But it’s not the economic value of the pet. It’s the value of the pet to the owner.

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