Law Review: Proper Estate Planning for Pets: The Pet Trust

by Margaret (Mia) Lorenz, Attorney

I have furry children, do you?

More than ever, our pets are considered part of our family. Do you ever wonder what would happen to your pet if you become disabled? Or die? Many pets of seniors end up in a shelter upon their owner’s disability or death. These pets are especially hard to rehome because they are usually older and perceived to potentially cost more to care for, and will pass away too soon. Clients of all age express concern to me regarding options for their pets if they are no longer able to care for them, or they die.  Many of the estate plans I help create involve provisions for pets upon death or disability. 

Many clients, upon visiting an estate planning attorney, have clearly thought about their pets and maybe have even identified a person to “take” their pet upon their death. These clients may have thought of a sum of money to give to that person upon the condition that the identified person actually takes the pet. But what if the person takes the pet, gets the specified sum and then dies? – or becomes disabled?– or simply can’t handle the pet after all and gives the pet to a shelter? That person has received money for the purpose of pet care, but that money is not going to “follow the pet.”   

A properly drafted North Carolina pet trust can force the money to “follow the pet.” As you probably know, you cannot leave/give money to a named pet; such a bequest is unenforceable in the law. And so, if your will leaves $10,000.00 to your dog, Brandy, the court will not enforce the provision and the bequest will fail. This is because your pet is considered tangible personal property under the law, and such a thing cannot receive money. The law looks at such a bequest as leaving money to a car or piece of furniture – it’s not legally possible. However, in North Carolina, you can leave money to a Trust for the benefit of your dog, Brandy.  

North Carolina pet trusts are specifically allowed by our North Carolina law.  Although certain statutory requirements must be met, there is flexibility in approach, and therefore, I have created varying types of pet trusts in my years of practice. As an example, a client will name a specific amount of money to be distributed to the pet trust for the benefit of the pet.  It is important to consider the lifespan of your pet – an exotic bird like a parrot can live a very long time and may need more money in its trust; a dog like a German shepherd that is predisposed to certain hind quarter issues may be worthy of more money for potential medical costs.  Moreover, the pet trust will identify a trustee – the person who manages and controls the money – and a caregiver – the person who actually cares daily for the pet. There is also an “enforcer” who will check in on the pet to make sure the pet is being properly cared for. A client will identify different people for all roles, as well as alternates in the event one of the persons identified dies or resigns. Additionally, the trust directs that the trust monies are distributed by the trustee for the pet’s veterinary bills, food, grooming, medicine, supplies, equipment, boarding, and more.  Sometimes clients want the caregiver to receive a stipend. Ultimately, you can direct the circumstances for which the money is used for your pet’s euthanasia (usually only upon the trustee’s receipt of confirmation from a licensed veterinarian that the pet is incurably ill and the pet’s quality of life is minimal). Upon the death of your pet, you direct where remaining funds go – perhaps to your favorite pet charity or to your remaining family.  

Properly drafted trusts may even begin when you become disabled. Knowing that your move to a nursing facility without your beloved pet will not cause the abandonment of your pet (a trust is funded for the benefit of your pet; therefore your pet’s options of rehoming are better than normal), is a very comforting feeling.  

Simply put: Pets can be considered as carefully as family members in a client’s estate plan. If you desire to carefully plan for your pet, be sure to talk with your estate planning attorney about it! There are legal ways to ensure your money follows your pet! 

Margaret (Mia) Lorenz is an attorney in Southern Pines at Lorenz and Creed Law Firm PLLC, where she helps people with many legal needs such as preparing their wills and/or trusts, helping when a loved one dies, and helping purchase or sell real estate. She has been assisting people with their legal needs for 26 years.   In addition to her husband, John, to whom she has been married for 27 years, she has two children (Matthew and Nicole); three furry children (Brandy (basset beagle hound mix), Mickey and Minnie (cats); and is grandmother to two furry grandchildren (Clif the dog and Aurora, the cat).