Do You Need a Pet Trust?

woman researching on computer with dogs

95% of American pet owners consider their pets to be family members. Given this filial sentiment, the rapidly growing interest in pet trusts should perhaps come as no surprise. More and more pet parents seek to guarantee a particular lifestyle for their pets in the future if the pet parents themselves are no longer able to look after them.

Enter the pet trust.

What is a pet trust?

A pet trust is a means of providing for your pet in the event of your death or disability. A well written pet trust allows you to nominate someone to look after your pet, specify the standards of care that your pet should receive, and leave funds for the benefit of your pet.

After creating a pet trust, you fund the trust by re-titling assets in the trust’s name. A manager of the trust, called a trustee, supervises the trust’s assets and makes distributions of funds according to the instructions that you provide in the trust documents.

When used appropriately, a pet trust is a great tool because it provides a legally enforceable manner for assuring that your directions regarding care for your pet are carried out.

Like other trusts, however, you’ll need to be comfortable performing some regular maintenance of your pet trust or compensating another trustee to do it for you. In addition to ensuring you fund your trust, you’ll need to keep accurate records of the accounting and administration of the trust.

Is creating and maintaining a pet trust worth it?

Pet trusts are not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. Based on the amount of money that you want to set aside for your pet, your trust in your Pet Guardian, and a host of other common factors, you might decide that incorporating a pet trust as part of your estate plan is a prudent decision. Or you might not.

The key is to decide how much weight you want to afford to each pro and con.

Trust Comparison Table
Pet Trust Pros Pet Trust Cons
Creates legally enforcable contract to nominate pet guardians, provide care instructions, and detail other wishes Can be expensive ($3,000+) to create if using an attorney
Provides ability to designate the specific purposes for which funds can be used May need to include money to cover the ongoing expense of administering your trust
Retains ownership over the funds during your lifetime Requires upfront time investment for set-up as well as separate record keeping for accounting and tax purposes

Who should create pet trusts?

Generally speaking, a pet trust is a good tool for people who plan to leave $15,000+ to their pet and/or who would like extra financial and legal means of controlling the treatment of their pet beyond what’s available through an outright gift to the pet guardian.

For most individuals, however, a pet trust is not necessary. They will prefer one of three other options for incorporating their pet into their estate plan.

Alternatives to pet trusts

People who want to avoid the dangers of informal arrangements for the care of their pets might consider three alternatives to pet trusts.

  1. Gift of the pet to a pet retirement home or no-kill shelter. Although typically available only for cats and dogs, gifting the pet to a pet retirement home or no-kill shelter may be a good solution for pet parents who are uncomfortable with naming or do not know a qualified individual to name a Pet Guardian. Do your homework to make sure that you are aware of the conditions under which the chosen pet retirement home will accept new pets -- typically a financial contribution or other donation is required -- and look for a home that has been in existence for a long time as these shelters can often go out of business without sufficient funding.
  2. An outright gift to a human beneficiary. To help ensure that your Pet Guardian has sufficient funds to properly care for your pet, you might make an outright gift to them through adding an appropriate clause to your will. Be aware that while you can request in your will that this gift be used for the continued to care and comfort of your pet, such a request is typically not legally enforceable. Your chosen guardian could probably put the gift to other causes if they so desired.
  3. A Pet Protection Plan. A Pet Protection Plan is an estate planning document that allows you to designate who should look after your pet in the event of an emergency and detail the proper care instructions for your pet. It is a legally valid, enforceable written agreement that is a contract between you and your Pet Guardian(s), and it can largely mirror the benefits of a pet trust – without all the same administrative upkeep.

The Bottom Line on Pet Trusts

Pet trusts have grown in popularity over the last several years, and today all 50 states officially recognize pet trusts as part of their estate law. But unless you are planning on leaving your pooch a small fortune, you will likely find that the administrative burden of maintaining a pet trust outweighs the benefits. Moreover, you can largely mirror the benefits of a pet trust with a Pet Protection Plan without all the hassle that comes with maintaining a trust.