We have two dogs, Moose and Ruby. I’m only a little embarrassed to say that we fall into the “pets are a part of the family” category of animal owner . . . our dogs pretty much go where we go, to the point where they may be the determining factor as to whether we go on a vacation or take a weekend trip. For those who know us, this is probably not surprising. We have been active with local animal rescues and at the local municipal animal care and control center. Our animals are a big part of our lives; it probably also isn’t surprising that making sure they are cared for if something happened to us is a pretty big deal.
Some states make it very easy to provide for your pet in your estate plan, usually by creating a pet trust. Sadly, Minnesota is not one of these states. A pet trust is a legal entity consisting of a trustee and some trust assets (usually some money you leave to the trustee in your will). The trustee manages the trust assets for a human beneficiary who has agreed to care for the animal, and to use those trust funds for the animal’s care. This arrangement is perfectly allowable in Minnesota too, except in the pet trust states, the agreement is an enforceable obligation.
The problem lies in the status of pets as personal property. This makes sense, of course; dogs, cats, parrots, and ferrets are not people. They can’t make contracts, they can’t consent to legal agreements, and they certainly can’t hire a lawyer and sue when they are having a problem. Pets, in the eyes of our legal system, are property on the same level as your couch or dining room table (though certain states are becoming enlightened ). Sometimes that doesn’t feel right because of the personal nature of our relationship with our animals . . . surely a living, breathing thing that depends on me for food and shelter isn’t on the same footing as my refrigerator. But it’s the reality, and it’s something we need to work around when we are planning our estate.
Your Pet’s Care
You can still set money aside for your pet’s care. I mentioned that you can create a trust for your pet, but it is not enforceable in the same way as it is in states that have pet trust laws. But if there is someone you know of who you trust to care for your pet if something happens to you, make sure you leave instructions in your will indicating that this person has agreed to accept the animal and to provide care. You could then leave this person some money outright, or you could create a small trust for the benefit of this person. The trust could be written to reimburse that person for all animal-related expenses, such as vet bills and pet food.
If you do not have someone who can care for your pet, that is okay. There are organizations with whom you can make arrangements; contact pet rescues in your area. Oftentimes, in exchange for a donation in your will, they will commit to caring for your pet when you are gone and they will work towards finding a new home for your animal. Make sure you have an arrangement with the pet rescue in writing before assuming your pet will have care. Here is a downloadable .PDF with more information from the Animal Humane Society.
Minnesota is considering changing its trust code to conform to the Uniform Trust Code, a set of model rules that many states are adopting as their own. The Code does allow for pet trusts, but it is up to the Minnesota legislature as to whether the pet trust provisions will be included. As an animal advocate and pet owner, I would love to see pet trusts become part of the estate planning landscape in Minnesota. Until then, let’s make sure we remember our furry friends, and let’s not forget the commitment we have made to care for them.
Philip J. Ruce creates wills and trusts for families who want to feel secure that their loved ones are cared-for. Philip is a trust and estate attorney based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Philip is the author of Trustee University: The Guidebook to Best Practices for Family Trustees. available at Amazon.com in paperback or Kindle edition (free chapter available here!) He also works with trustees and beneficiaries who need help with their trusts. You can contact him here.
Keywords: trusts and estates, Minnesota wills, revocable trusts, estate attorney, probate, estate planning, will