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ESTATE PLANNING FOR DOGS?  PET TRUSTS BECOME LEGAL IN MASSACHUSETTS ON APRIL 7, 2011. 

Increasingly in today’s households, pets are becoming loving family members to many of us. But what happens to your beloved animal when you are no longer able to care for it? There’s great news in Massachusetts for animal lovers who want to make sure their furry friends and other animals are well cared for should something happen to the owner. On April 7th, 2011 a bill that Gov. Deval Patrick signed into law, authorized the creation of a trust naming an animal as beneficiary in order to provide for its care should their owner become disabled or dies. Yes, like Leona Helmsely you too can now legally leave your assets for the care and well-being of your dog or other pet, however, unlike New York, if the amount of assets in the pet trust is unreasonably large the Massachusetts law allows the Court to review and reduce the amount in the trust so long as there will be no substantial impact to the pet.

The Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MSPCA) applauded the new law stating that pet owners will now be assured that their directions regarding companion animals will be carried out. It also pointed out that this law will serve an important public policy in reducing the burden on municipal shelters and rescue organizations.

So exactly what does this new law relative to pet trusts allow: 

• The Massachusetts pet trust allows for an appointment of both a trustee as well as a caregiver (which can be the same person or two different people), with the beneficiary being the loving pet.

•  The trustee named in the trust has both a legal and fiduciary duty to follow the directions of the trust. If the trustee breaches that duty, a beneficiary or another person who is caring for the animal can sue the trustee.

• The trust terminates when the animal or the last of the animals identified in the trust passes away.

•  The new statute also includes safeguards restricting distributions of trust funds to the trustee and allows for Court enforcement of the trust if funds are misused or mishandled. Under this new law, only those fees, costs (such as reasonable trustee fees and costs of administration), and other distributions that the Court deems reasonable or that are explicitly outlined in the trust will be permitted.

• When the last of the named animal beneficiary dies, the remaining trust funds will then be distributed as directed in the trust. If there’s no directions in the trust, then the funds will be returned to the person or people who initially created the trust (the grantor), if alive. If not alive, then the funds will pass through the grantor’s residuary clause in the will or if no will, then to the grantor’s heirs under the laws of intestacy.

When planning for your pets there are some things that you should consider and be aware of when setting up your estate plan. For example, did you know that your pet is deemed personal property? As a result, you must not forget to transfer this loving property via a trust or a will in a similar manner as when you transfer a home, a car, a gold necklace, or a family heirloom. You can also give your pet away prior to your mental incapacity or death. Whatever estate planning documents you choose, clearly delineate the standard of care that is to be given to your pet. For example, if your animal has specific requirements such as an unusual diet or medical needs, list these in the trust or the will and leave specific funds for that care. Also, clearly identify your pet, so that it cannot be replaced by a dishonest caregiver that may wish to unscrupulously extend payment of their services by caring for a different but similar pet. You should clearly list any unreasonably large or excessive expenditures that you would like for your pet. Leaving an irrationally excessive pet trust fund could lead your unhappy heirs and beneficiaries to contest the trust or cause a Court itself to reduce the assets to a reasonable amount. On the other hand, you should make sure your trust is not under funded. The trust funds should take into consideration the size and life expectancy of the animal, the amount necessary to provide the animal with proper care, be it a pet-sitter or a professional boarding business, veterinary, as well as take into account when the caregiver is on vacation, in a hospital, out of town or is otherwise temporarily unavailable. Finally, how would you like your pet to be disposed of at death, (ie type of burial or if you want cremation)? Which pet funeral services, if any, do you wish? Is euthanasia a consideration? These are all wishes that should be thought about in advance.

In summary, pre-arrangement considerations for your pet is quite simple: When you prepare or update your pet trust, family trust, will, or other legal documents, include clear instructions of your wishes with regard to your pet, the contact information of professionals that have provided services to your pets, and even guidelines as to the final disposition of your pet. A carefully planned and drawn estate plan can assure you that your furry loved ones will be well cared. Until now, your only option in Massachusetts was to name a caregiver and leave money directly to the caregiver. There was no guarantee that that caregiver would actually use the monies for your pet. Now you have one more choice in your pet’s planning by being able to create a trust relative to the care of your adoring and loving animal, therein creating a legal obligation in your trustee to use the monies as you dictate in your trust. Thus, giving you peace of mind and guaranteeing that your beloved pet will not end up in a shelter or on the streets.

Finally, no two people and no two pets are alike. Each pet must be protected and cared for in its own special way. It is recommended that you speak with a legal professional that specializes in pet estate planning to assure that all of your wishes are clearly and properly addressed.

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