February 6, 2023
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Op/ed: Caring for Fido after you’re gone – should you set up a pet trust?


Brooke Cleary McDermott

Brooke Cleary McDermott

Any person with a beloved family pet will tell you just how much that furry friend means to their family. Because a pet is often an integral part of the family unit, many people wonder how he or she will be taken care of once the humans are no longer capable of doing so, either because of incapacity or a death in the family.

Perhaps one of the most famous examples of our generation is that of real estate tycoon Leona Helmsley and her beloved Maltese dog, Trouble. In 2007, Helmsley died at the age of 87 due to congestive heart failure. While the majority of her $4 billion estate passed to a charitable trust, in her will, she left a $12 million bequest to Trouble for the dog’s care and well-being.

Needless to say, it was an exorbitant amount of money to be left for the care of a family pet, and subsequently a New York judge reduced the inheritance to Trouble to a mere $2 million, stating that the $12 million inheritance was excessive to fulfill the purpose of caring for Trouble. Although Trouble’s yearly expenses were extremely high at $169,200 ($60,000 for a guardian, $8,000 for grooming, $1,200 for food and $100,000 for security), considering the dog was 9 years old at Helmsley’s death, even $2 million was more than enough to care for the canine.

When Trouble passed away in 2010, the remaining assets held in her trust were distributed to a charitable trust established by the Helmsleys: the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust.

Exploring options

While not many people have $12 million, or even $2 million, to leave in trust for the care of their family pet, rest assured there are a number of excellent options available for the care of your furry family member when the time comes.

These options include re-homing your pet with a trusted family member or friend, using an organization that is willing to accept and assist with the placement of your pet or creating a trust for the benefit of your pet, as Helmsley did.

All of these are excellent options and offer a solution to the question of who should care for your pet once you are no longer able to do so yourself. The right option for you will depend on a number of factors, including time, expense and complexity. Exploring each of these solututions in turn will enable you to make the best decision for you and your pet.

The least expensive and simplest solution for the care of your family pet is to re-home him or her with a trusted family member or friend. These are people who you know and trust and who know how you care for your animals. Additionally, these are often people whom your pet already knows and likes. To help with the financial burden of such items as food and veterinary care, some people consider leaving this caregiver a sum of money.

But what do you do when you do not have a family member or friend who is willing and able to take care of your pet? This is a question that many struggle with. Fortunately, there are a number of organizations that can help. These organizations, such as the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Los Angeles, will take in your pets when you are no longer able to care for them and work to place them in a home with a loving family. There is a cost to placing your pet with these organizations. Oftentimes, they require an initial donation and enrollment in a planned giving program or a bequest at your passing in order to care for your pet before they are placed in a new home.

When neither of the above options seem like a good fit for your pet or your situation, then a third option is available: the pet trust. This is the most complex and expensive method of planning for the care of your pet, but it allows you to have the most flexibility in terms of who and how your pet will be cared for.

If you elect to use a pet trust, there are several important decisions you need to make. First and foremost, you need to select a trustee who will manage the assets of the pet trust and who will serve as your pet’s caregiver.

You’ll need to consider how and if this person will be compensated and who will succeed them in the event that they are unable to continue as trustee and caregiver of your pet. The second major consideration is how much money you should distribute to this trust. This involves considering the age and longevity of your pet, current and future veterinary expenses, and food and shelter costs.

You also need to consider how you would like your pet cared for and directions that should be given to their caregiver for their grooming, activity and basic well-being. Since every animal has a unique personality and specific guidelines for his or her care, creating a pet trust is a very personal process and therefore can be an expensive undertaking.

Ultimately, you need to know that there are a number of options available for the care of your family pet, ranging from simple and inexpensive to complex and costly. There is no right or wrong decision, there is just the decision that is right for you and your pet.

• Brooke Cleary McDermott is an estate planning attorney with Santa Barbara-based firm Ambrecht & Associates. Contact her at mcdermott@taxlawsb.com.