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Who Will Care for My Pets When I Die? The Ins & Outs of Pet Trusts

2 cats

When estate planning, we often think about our spouse or children — but what about our furry family members? Here’s the sad truth: if you don’t make the right arrangements for your pet after you’re gone, they could end up in a shelter facing an uncertain fate.

Our pets give us unconditional love (unless you’re the ‘spare human’), so it’s only fair we return the favor if we’re not there to take care of them. Setting up a pet trust is a great way to guarantee your four-legged friend continues to receive the love and attention they deserve when you’re no longer in the picture.

This article will include:

  • What is a pet trust, and how does it work?
  • How to make arrangements for pets after death.
  • Who can look after your pet when you’re no longer around.

Read more:

What Is a Pet Trust?

A pet trust is a way to make sure your pet is well taken care of if something happens to you. We imagine family or friends will step in to care for our pets, but that’s not always possible or practical. Your spouse might find it too much to handle, or your kids might not want your testy tabby scratching up their brand-new sofa.

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And what happens then? To put it bluntly — your pet could be sent to a shelter and (worst case scenario) get euthanized. And with an estimated 689,000 shelter animals getting euthanized every year, it’s simply not worth the risk.

That’s where a pet trust can bring some much-needed peace of mind. 

Legally, you can’t leave money or property directly to your pet since they are considered property themselves. But with a pet trust, you ensure your pet ends up with a caretaker and the financial means to look after them. The funds in your trust can cover food, medical care, and general well-being expenses.

A pet trust is about more than just money, though. You know your pet better than anyone, so you’re the best person to specify their likes, dislikes, and daily routines.

Does your pup demand to be carried upstairs like the king he is? No problem. You choose the new caregiver and give them clear instructions so your pet continues to receive the love, attention, and preferential treatment they deserve.

How Does a Pet Trust Work?

As much as we see our pets as part of the family, they are, in fact, considered property, so they can’t technically inherit anything once we’re gone. You can get around this with a pet trust — a legal arrangement set up by you, the grantor (also known as a settlor or trustor), to ensure your pet is properly cared for by someone you trust.

Here’s how it works: you pick a caregiver and a trustee, the person or entity responsible for managing the trust’s assets, which can cover cash, investments, or other property. This trustee dispenses funds regularly to your chosen pet caregiver.

The trust usually stays active for the pet’s lifetime or 21 years, whichever comes first. Fun fact: the oldest dog to ever live was 31 years old — but for all the cats and dogs without superhuman lifespans, 21 years is more than enough.

However, if you own a parrot, horse, or a (surprisingly) long-living tortoise, it’s worth chatting with a pet trust attorney to tailor the trust to their needs. If you’ve got more than one pet, the trust continues until the last pet passes away. 

After that, any leftover funds go to the beneficiaries, who can be individuals or organizations.

How to Set up a Pet Trust?

If you’re keen to give your pets a legal safety net, here is how you can do it:

1. Choose a Trusted Guardian

Start by choosing a trusted caregiver who will be responsible for your pet’s daily care. And as it’s your favorite furbaby on the line, I’d go for a close family or friend (preferably an allergy-free one).

If that’s not an option, you can choose an organization that specializes in caring for pets whose owners have passed away or can no longer care for them.

Tip: I suggest finding at least two potential caregivers so you have a backup in case your first choice can’t take on a new pet.

2. Select a Trustee

Find a trustee who will manage and oversee the pet trust. Your trustee could be an individual, an organization specializing in trust management, or even a law firm. Just select wisely, as the chosen one will make sure all the funds are used according to your wishes.

3. Fund the Care

You’ll need to plan for the amount of funds to care for your pet — for the rest of their life. Start by creating an annual budget for your pet’s financial needs for their estimated life expectancy. Make sure you cover food, medical care, grooming, bedding, and those all-important treats.

From there, you can fund the trust in a few ways.

A specific bequest in your will or living trust lets you leave a set amount directly to the caregiver. Alternatively, a pet trust offers more control over how the money is spent, as the trustee has to follow the trust’s terms.

Remember: Any remaining funds after your pet’s death can go to a beneficiary of your choice, who doesn’t have to be the pet’s caregiver.

4. Organize Your Documents

Finally, properly document everything so your wishes are crystal clear. You should clearly identify each pet in the trust document using names, photos, descriptions, and microchips.

Include detailed care instructions so the caregiver knows exactly what to do. Does your dog require extra exercise? Does your cat have a personal vendetta with the hoover? Don’t forget to consider your pet’s needs as they age or are forced to change environments.

Note: Since pet trust laws vary by state, consult a pet trust attorney or review your state’s statutes to ensure everything is set up correctly.

5. Have a Fallback Plan

Circumstances change, people move away, and sometimes that dog person turns out to be a cat person (crazy, I know) — so make sure you have a backup plan.

Your fallback could involve an organization that can rehome your pet to a no-kill shelter you trust. You can also include a bequest to this organization in your will or add it as a beneficiary to your trust. Just make sure to revisit your plan regularly, especially if there are changes in your pet’s health or care needs.

How Much Does It Cost to Set up a Pet Trust?

Setting up a pet trust can cost between $500 and $1,500, while the amount you leave for a caregiver to take care of your pet usually ranges from $5,000 to $15,000.

So, where is that money going? 

First off, you’ll need to pay for an organization or attorney to draft the trust document, with rates varying depending on the complexity of the trust. There are also administrative costs, like filing fees for the trust documents, accounting fees, costs for filing annual tax returns, and for managing the trust’s finances.

On top of that, there are trustee fees. If you get a professional trustee, like a bank or attorney, they usually charge an annual management fee — typically ranging from 0.5% to 2.0% of the trust’s total assets.

And, of course, the type and life expectancy of your pet also influence the cost. Trusts for pets with shorter lifespans, like cats and dogs (around 10 to 14 years) cost less than pets with longer lifespans, like horses, turtles, or your crazy cockatoo (which can live up to 80 years)!

You can fund the pet trust in installments rather than a lump sum — either way, the aim is to make sure the funds last throughout your pet’s life and can be used for their care. I’d opt for periodic payments, so your caregiver consistently has the resources for your pet.

Note: Pet trusts aren’t considered charitable, so they’re subject to inheritance and income taxes. Some states even apply their highest inheritance tax rates to these trusts.

Benefits of a Pet Trust

The cost of setting up a pet trust can be a dealbreaker if you’re on a tight budget — but if you’re still on the fence, here are some of the reasons to loosen the purse strings:

  • Peace of mind: You can rest easy knowing there are detailed instructions for your pet’s care. You can specify everything from the number of vet visits each year to the amount of exercise and even your pet’s favorite toys.
  • Ongoing duty of care: With a pet trust, you appoint a trustee who manages the trust’s funds and a caregiver who looks after your pet. You can include terms in the trust that require regular inspections to ensure the caregiver is following your instructions.

If the court finds that the caretaker or trustee isn’t complying with the trust’s terms or is misusing the funds, the money goes back to your estate, and those responsible can face serious legal consequences.

  • Flexible terms: Another benefit is that a pet trust can operate during your lifetime. Unlike a will, which only takes effect after your death, a pet trust can kick in if you become incapacitated and unable to care for your pet. This means your pet is covered in situations where you might be temporarily or permanently unable to provide their day-to-day care.

Crazy Cases: Pets Whose Owners Have Died

I can’t finish this article without mentioning some of the bizarre stories of pet trusts. If anything, these cases are precautionary tales of what not to do — although most of us probably aren’t leaving millions to Bob the Cat.

Micheal Jackson: Bananas for Bubbles

The King of Pop has always been surrounded by controversy, so it comes as no surprise that he reportedly left his pet chimp Bubbles $2 million. Bubbles went everywhere with MJ, before being sent to a ranch due to becoming difficult to look after, alongside rumors of animal mistreatment.

Bubbles is still alive and thriving at the Center for Great Apes in Florida. But what happened to the money? Well, for unclear reasons, Bubbles supposedly never received the money. However, the Jackson estate has continued to financially support the chimp as he lives out his days in the sanctuary.

Leona Helmsley: Queen of Mean

Despite being known as the ‘Queen of Mean’, businesswoman Leona Helmsley’s pooch (ironically named Trouble) would probably disagree after being left a whopping $12 million in a trust fund. Trouble was the third-richest dog in the world at the time — and Helmsley left two of her grandchildren with nothing to make it happen.

A judge with common sense decided $12 million was too excessive for a small Maltese dog and slashed the fund to $2 million — still more than enough to live a life of luxury. Trouble’s inheritance was spent on $1,200 for food, $8,000 for grooming, and $100,000 on security.

Ms Liu: What Goes Around Comes Around

This case isn’t as famous, but there are still some valuable lessons to be learned. Instead of leaving her $2.8 million fortune to her children, Ms Liu has decided to leave the entire inheritance to her cats and dogs. 

Questionable, to say the least, but her reason might make you more sympathetic. Ms Liu decided to disinherit her children after feeling neglected by them, with her pets filling that much-needed companionship.

Despite leaving your estate to pets being illegal, Liu has made it clear she wants all the money to go towards her pet’s care, with a local veterinary being tasked to manage the inheritance. The moral of the story: visit your parents!

Is It Worth Setting up a Pet Trust?

Setting up a pet trust guarantees your furry friend gets the care they deserve if something happens to you. You can leave detailed instructions and funds for your pet’s care, ensuring their routine and comfort are maintained.

This type of planning gives you peace of mind, knowing your pet’s future is secure. It also prevents placing any unexpected burden on your family or friends. You can even choose backup caregivers and decide how any leftover funds should be used. While it takes some time and money, the peace of mind and security it provides for your pet’s future make it more than worth it.


How to rehome cats after the owner dies?

When rehoming your cat after you’re no longer here, it’s important to plan ahead by designating a caregiver in your will or a pet trust. Choose someone who loves cats and understands their needs, and include detailed care instructions with enough funds for their care.

If no friends or family can take them, consider reputable animal rescue organizations or no-kill shelters that will take cats. Just ensure your chosen caregiver or organization is informed of your plans to guarantee your cats find a loving home and continue to receive the care they need.

Who will care for my pets when I die?

Decide who will care for your pets by naming a caregiver in your will or setting up a pet trust. Choose someone you trust and who is willing to take on the responsibility.

Discuss your decision with them to ensure they’re prepared. You should also include detailed care instructions and allocate funds for your pets’ needs, covering expenses like food and vet bills. If personal options aren’t available, look into organizations that specialize in caring for the pets of deceased owners.

What to do with pets when the owner dies?

If a family member or friend passes away and leaves their pet behind, you have a few options. First, check to see if the owner made any arrangements for their pet, such as setting up a pet trust or entrusting their furry friend with an individual or organization.

If no arrangements were made, the responsibility falls on friends and family to decide what to do with the pet. They can choose to look after the pet themselves, rehome it privately, or take it to a no-kill shelter. The first option is always preferable as it can be less stressful for the animal if it’s in a familiar environment.

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