Trust Estate

Can I Leave My Truck To My Dog?

Matthew Erskine, July 28, 2022

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The author of this article argues that pet owners should act to have someone care for their animals after the owner dies or is incapacitated. And people should consider alternative ways to provide for pets, and fund that care, after death.

We write and talk a lot about estate planning in wealth management – rightly so. And in the vast majority of cases, transfers of assets in wills go to people in various ways. There are, of course, examples of people leaving resources to non-humans – such as homes for dogs, cats and other animals that have been left abandoned and homeless. The statement about “leaving wealth to the dog home” has become a sort of trope within conversations about inheritance. 

What about the steps a pet owner can take to ensure that his or her pet is cared for after the owner dies? Well, in nations full of pet lovers such as the US, this question might at first glance seem a bit of a fringe concern but it is actually significant. (Look at how much money owners spend on pet food – it is a big industry. The same goes for veterinary bills.)

To look at this area is Matthew Erskine, managing partner of Erskine & Erskine. Erskine has written for this news service before. As ever, the usual disclaimers apply to contributioins from external writers. Jump into the debate! Email tom.burroughes@wealthbriefing.com

I was recently asked by a client if he could leave his truck to his dog…and the short answer was “yes, you can,” by using a Pet Trust. Indeed, I have received similar questions from friends and family on how to make such a gift, so here is a bit more on providing for pets and using a pet trust.  

First, though, remember that your pet is considered, legally, to be your personal property – the same as your truck, your furniture and your jewelry. Without any specific plans for your pets, your heirs inherit the ownership of your pet, who may or may not be willing or able to care of your pet. If you own a pet, these are some steps you should take immediately and some longer-term planning you should consider. 

If you do not think your heirs would or could care for your pet, I recommend that you line up two friends or relatives who agree to serve as emergency and/or long-term caretakers. Provide them with the veterinarian’s name, discuss your wishes of what should happen to your pet and provide your veterinarian with their contact information. Discuss up front how expenses will be covered. Stay in touch with your potential caretakers because circumstances can change over time: people move and have children, or situations may arise that impact their physical and financial ability to help manage your affairs. Having two caretakers means that you have alternatives, if and when the situation arises.

Also, consider carrying a wallet card or a note on your phone with emergency contact information related to your animals, and give the contact information to both your veterinarian and your lawyer.

Consider, whether to involve the humane society or have strictly private agreements and/or trusts. Financially, there will be funds needed to cover temporary or permanent costs for your pets, including boarding, bills and healthcare costs. Verbal promises are ambiguous in most cases, so having a trust or power of attorney in place to clarify available resources can help. Here are four options:

-- A living trust is a popular choice because it can be accessed immediately and is private (without probate court delays). It can be used if you become ill or incapacitated. You set aside money for care, and a named trustee has control. A trust is more flexible than a will, which takes effect only at death and can be a slow process. 

-- A pet trust may be included in a living trust, or as a stand-alone trust. The named trustee is given funds and guidelines/mandates as to how to administer funds for your pet, and how to distribute any remaining funds when your pet dies. A pet trust is now valid in all states.

-- Power of attorney is used in the event of physical or mental incapacity, with provisions outlined for expenses, but terminates when the owner dies, unlike a trust or will. A power of attorney can be as broad or as narrow as you desire, so you could grant a power of attorney that has power only over specific funds for the maintenance and support of specific animals, without giving them a broad power over other assets.  Also, you can appoint more than one person to hold the power, but since the power does not go into effect until you actually give the physical paper to the person and can be revoked at any time, you can appoint one person and remove them and replace them with another, if you should so choose. 

-- Life insurance is useful if you do not have sufficient property to support your pet’s care. Life insurance creates the financial resources you need to fund your pet trust. 

You also have the option of putting a provision in their will for the care of their pets. Such provisions designate a caretaker, and commonly set aside an amount of money with a request for the money to be used by the caretaker in the care of the pets. Pet owners can provide alternative caretakers if the original is unable or unwilling to accept the animals and can designate temporary guardians for pets while estate issues are being settled. 

Unlike a trust arrangement for the care of a pet, there is no continuing obligation for the executor under a will to see to the wellbeing of the pet once the administration of an estate is complete. The integrity and moral commitment of the caregiver will be your only assurance that the pet’s care will continue. Therefore, choose your primary caregiver and alternate caregiver, wisely. 

Consider making arrangements with a humane society, animal rescue group or animal “rest home” to take possession and care of your pet. You should review the type of care offered by each organization, its facility and staff, as well as the costs associated with that care. 

To care of your pet, you should take action immediately just in case, to have someone to care for them in the event that you are not able to. Additionally, you should consider alternative ways to provide for your pets, and fund that care after your death. Hopefully, this answers some of the questions that you might have on my comment, “that yes, you can leave your truck to your dog.”

 

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