What Is a Pet Trust?

Pet Trusts Explained

Mature woman hugs her two dogs in the mountains
•••

John P Kelly / Getty Images

A pet trust is an estate-planning tool you can use to provide financially for the care of pets after you pass away. You create the trust and fund it, and then a trustee is responsible for managing the trust according to your wishes. 

Creating a pet trust is something you might consider to make sure your pets will be taken care of if something were to happen to you. It might also be a good idea if you have a particularly long-lived pet, such as a parrot or iguana. Similar to creating a trust with human beneficiaries, it's important to understand how a pet trust works. 

Definition and Examples of a Pet Trust

A pet trust is a legal arrangement that allows you to provide for the care and maintenance of one or more pets should they outlive you. The person who creates a pet trust is known as the grantor; the person who manages a pet trust is the trustee.

This type of trust can hold assets, usually cash, that the trustee can use to pay for the care of the animals for whom the trust was established. The grantor (i.e., the pet owner) can also outline specific instructions for how each pet's care should be managed by a named caregiver. 

For example, say you're creating a pet trust for your two dogs. You might leave instructions for your chosen caregiver about which type of food you prefer they eat, which veterinarian should be responsible for managing their health, and how they should be groomed. 

Trustees are fiduciaries and are obligated to act according to the instructions you set in the trust terms.

How Does a Pet Trust Work?

Setting up a pet trust is very similar to creating a living trust for human beneficiaries. All 50 states have laws that recognize pet trusts, though the wording may vary from state to state. 

For example, Alaska's law specifies that pet trusts are allowed for designated domestic or pet animals. Other states, including Arizona and California, only mention “animals” in the wording of their pet trust statutes.

States may also differ on when a pet trust terminates. In Alabama, a pet trust created under the statute expires upon the death of the last surviving animal covered by the trust. In Alaska, state law specifies that a trust expires when no living animal is covered by it or after 21 years, whichever is earlier.

When you set up a pet trust, it's up to you to set the terms and fund it. The terms of the trust should take into account the expected cost of caring for your pet, as well as their life expectancy. You'll also need to consider what should happen to any surplus money left in the trust once your pet passes away. In addition, think about whether any of the trust specifications would be different if you become incapacitated instead of passing away, such as whether you would want them to visit you if possible.

Consider naming one or more backup caregivers who could take over if something were to happen to your pet's primary caregiver named in the trust.

Say you own two dogs and three cats. Altogether, they have an average life expectancy of 15 years. Between vet visits, food, boarding, grooming, and other expenses, their care costs you $10,000 a year. You could create a pet trust and fund it with $150,000, which would cover the costs of all pets for up to 15 years. You could include instructions for the trustee that if any funds are left over when the trust expires, they should be donated to your local ASPCA or pet rescue organization.

When creating a trust, it's important to word it as specifically as possible to minimize the possibility of it being challenged by your heirs.

A famous example of a pet trust gone wrong is the one created by hotelier Leona Helmsley for her pet Maltese, Trouble. Helmsley created a $12 million pet trust for Trouble, which was later contested by two of her grandchildren who had been excluded from her will. Using a broad interpretation of the trust wording, a court reduced the pet trust to just $2 million, reallocating $6 million of it to the grandchildren and $4 million to a separate charitable trust.

Who Might Want a Pet Trust?

Creating a pet trust could make sense in certain situations, such as if:

  • You have one or more pets that you want to provide ongoing care for in case they outlive you.
  • You're concerned about not being able to care for your pets if you become incapacitated due to illness or disability.
  • Your pets require specialized care or treatment.
  • You don't want your family members or friends to be financially burdened by caring for your pets.

You can leave a pet to someone in your will and also leave that person money to go toward the pet’s care. But without a pet trust in place, you're operating in good faith that the caregiver will take care of your pet according to your wishes. 

If you have any doubts that your chosen caregiver would not follow through on what you want or your pet needs, a pet trust can offer some reassurance. For example, you could give your trustee the authority to replace the caregiver if they're not caring for your pet according to your wishes. 

When considering a pet trust, think about how it fits into your overall retirement and estate-planning strategy. Setting up a trust for a pet may have estate tax implications, so it may be helpful to talk to your financial advisor or a tax professional before creating one. 

You may also consider creating a living will for your pet, which specifies what kind of care they should receive in emergency or end-of-life situations.

Key Takeaways

  • A pet trust can allow you to provide financially for your pet's care after you pass away.
  • All 50 states allow pet trusts, though the wording and details vary from state to state. If you move to a new state, it’s a good idea to check whether you need to update your trust. 
  • Pet trusts can make sense for people who want to ensure that their pets receive a specific standard of care after they're gone. 
  • Creating a pet trust is something you might consider as part of your overall estate-planning approach, though it's important to look into the tax implications.