According to the Humane Society of the United States, every year 400,000 dogs and cats need to find new homes after their owners die. Undoubtedly, this can cause much unnecessary stress on the pets themselves, as well as the family members left to find a home for the pet once their owner has passed. Interestingly, Channel 4 News in Jacksonville recently ran a report on the peace of mind that pet owners feel once they have made arrangements to care for their pets in the event of their incapacity or death.
Overall, I thought that the piece was informative and entertaining, although I would disagree that it is always advisable to name a separate guardian and trustee. While this is certainly nice, when possible, oftentimes we find that it does not make administrative sense to attempt to structure the pet estate plan this way; as it may be difficult for pet owners to find two separate individuals to serve in these roles, especially if either, or both, of the parties want compensation for their services. More likely, a trusted family member is given the responsibility of taking care of the pet and they are also the trustee of any funds the previous owner set aside in their estate for the pet’s benefit. Florida law recognizes “pet trusts” and imposes fiduciary duties upon the trustee, even if they are also the guardian of the pet.
Whatever you decide, there is no reason that tailoring your estate plan to meet the needs of your pets has to be overly difficult or expensive. Most of the time, it is as simple as making sure the proper language appears in your documents. When you meet with your estate planning attorney, mention that you have pets and ask for their advice. At a minimum, you should consider naming a guardian who can take possession of your furry friends in the event of your death or incapacity. Of course, it is important to let the lucky individual know, and ask their permission, in order that you do not bring any unknown (and potentially unwanted) surprises down upon others. When possible, many pet owners do choose to have a testamentary pet trust drafted into their estate plan, in order to provide the guardian with the funds necessary to take proper care of their new companion.