Pet trusts can protect furry friends

California law views pets as the property of the person who owns and cares for their animal companion. But pet owners know that their little friends are more than that; a pet is part of the family. While pets do not have the same rights as people, there is an ability for pet owners to provide for their beloved animals even after they are incapable of doing so themselves.

Pet trusts are relatively new. In California, like other trusts, pet trusts are legally enforceable documents that give the trustee directions as to caring for the assets in the trust. California enacted a law allowing pet trusts in 2008. Some states do not recognize pet trusts as valid. Pet trusts should be as specific to the creator's wishes as possible. For example, the trust can direct the trustee to only give the pet only a certain type of food. The trust can state the type of home environment the pet is used to, specify veterinarian visits and include a list of people who can care for the pet according to the wishes of the pet owner. The trustee does not have to be the caretaker. A trustee may simply oversee the funding and management of the trust. The caretaker of the pet should also be named in the trust.

A pet trust generally terminates when the last pet(s) named in the trust are deceased. The creator of the trust does not need to be deceased for the trust to go into effect. In the event of incapacity on the part of the creator - for example, if the pet owner needs long-term or nursing home care - the trust can ensure proper care for pets left behind.

Funding the trust

The amount of funds that can be put into a pet trust is technically unlimited. However, if the trust is over-funded, family or other heirs may contest the amount. It is generally best to consider the needs, age and standard of living for the pet, and then put no more than twice the amount it would take to ensure the pet is well cared for. The trust can either be funded as a testamentary trust, meaning the creator's will is the method to fund the trust, or statutory, meaning the creator has control over the trust and can fund it as needed from almost any asset.

After the pet is deceased, the remaining funds can be distributed according to the wishes expressed in the trust. This usually takes the form of a pet charity organization such as the Humane Society.

California pet owners who wish to provide for their beloved pets in the event they can no longer do so should speak to a skilled estate planning attorney familiar with pet trusts.