Hey Missouri pet owners! You can create an estate plan to address important topics for your pet

Americans love their pets. The American Veterinary Medicine Association (AVMA) reports that approximately 85 million American households have one or more dog, cat, bird, or horse, representing approximately 157 million pets. That number excludes specialty and exotic pets like fish, rabbits, rodents, reptiles, poultry, and livestock.

Pets are often cherished, loved, and treated like family members. Many people form a bond with their pet that rivals any human relationship. So, for those individuals, including pets in an estate plan is just as important as including children and other family members.

But while the sentiment of leaving something to a pet in an estate plan is admirable, it cannot overcome the reality that a decedent cannot actually leave money or assets directly to a pet. Instead, Missouri law identifies animals as tangible personal property, so they cannot inherit.  In other words, a piece of property cannot inherit or own another piece of property. For that reason, even if a decedent includes instructions in a Last Will & Testament, those instructions are generally classified as symbolic or honorary in nature, and not legally enforceable. This means that, while a pet owner may wish for their beloved companion to live with someone in particular after his or her death and include text indicating such in a Last Will & Testament, that designated party is not under a legal obligation to actually do it, even if funds are made available and earmarked for the animal’s care in the document.  When planning for your pet’s life after your death, you have a range of options – from making simple, non-legal arrangement, to making a complex trust, to leaving your pet with an organization dedicated to taking care of pets after an owner’s death.

However, even though Missouri law suggests pets cannot inherit or own property, a grantor can still plan to ensure that a pet enjoys a comfortable life long after he or she dies. In those circumstances, a grantor generally executes a recent legal construct called a Pet Trust which can accomplish the following: (1) gives the pet to a caring person or organization; and (2) affords the new caretaker enough resources to take good care of the pet until its death.

A Pet Trust operates similarly to many other revocable and irrevocable trusts in that a grantor designates funds specifically for a beneficiary.  In this case, the beneficiary is a pet and the conditions set forth in the Pet Trust address the distribution of assets to care for one or more animals.  Unlike the text of a Last Will & Testament, conditions set forth in a Pet Trust are generally followed in order for the funds to be disbursed. Pet Trusts can be used in conjunction with Pet Protection Agreements, or they can be used independently.  PetProtectionAgreement.org, an online vendor of Pet Protection Agreements created by Rachel Hirschfield, Esq., describes a Pet Protection Agreement as “a legal document your pet adopters can use to make plans for the ongoing care of their pets. It is more powerful than a Will, Trust, or contract. This document is valid in all 50 states, both during the Pet Owner’s life or emergencies and in the event of the Pet Owner’s death. Additionally, it names your organization for donations and bequests.”

Whether a pet owner chooses a Pet Trust, a Pet Protection Agreement, or both, the goal is that detailed instructions be provided about caring for a pet, including: (a) Who gets custody of the pet; (b) What types of care the pet prefers; (c) Who should provide medical services; (d) Grooming preferences; (e) Walking/activity preferences; (f) Conditions under which the pet should be re-homed or an alternative plan should the original custodian be unable or unwilling to fulfill his or her duties; (g) The disposition of any residual amounts after the pet dies.

Missouri law allows for the creation of Pet Trusts and Pet Protection Agreements as part of comprehensive estate planning. Section 456.4-408 of the Missouri Revised Statutes provides that a trust may be created to provide for the care of an animal alive during the settlor’s lifetime. It reads in pertinent part: “1.  A trust may be created to provide for the care of an animal alive during the settlor’s lifetime.  The trust terminates upon the death of the animal or, if the trust was created to provide for the care of more than one animal alive during the settlor’s lifetime, upon the death of the last surviving animal. 2.  A trust authorized by this section may be enforced by a person appointed in the terms of the trust or, if no person is so appointed, by a person appointed by the court.  A person having an interest in the welfare of the animal may request the court to appoint a person to enforce the trust or to remove a person appointed. 3.  Property of a trust authorized by this section may be applied only to its intended use, except to the extent the court determines that the value of the trust property exceeds the amount required for the intended use.  Except as otherwise provided in the terms of the trust, property not required for the intended use must be distributed to the settlor, if then living, otherwise to the settlor’s successors in interest.”

What if no plan is made to address a pet?  If no estate plan exists, the pet will likely be treated as tangible personal property in Missouri.  Similar to a chair, table, or sofa, the pet may ultimately go to a residuary beneficiary – the person or people identified by Missouri law, through intestate succession. Planning for animal loved ones can be just as challenging as planning for adult loved ones. In some instances, it is more involved and more expensive. To make any estate planning arrangements described herein, a grantor must identify a trusted person or organization to care for a pet. More importantly, that person or organization must be willing to do it. Therefore, no matter which option is chosen, a grantor should have a candid conversation with a potential caretaker about how to care for the pet, the pet’s expenses, and the other specific expectations.

Todd Miller is a monthly contributor and regularly writes and speaks on various legal topic including estate planning, probate, and elder law.  He formed the Law Office of Todd Miller, LLC, 1305 Southwest Blvd., Ste. A, Jefferson City, Missouri in 2006.  He has been recognized as 2016 Adviser of the Year by GolfInc; Golf Tax Consultant of the Year by Boardroom Magazine three times; and “10 Best” attorneys by the American Institute of Family Law Attorneys and “10 Best” attorneys by the American Institute of Criminal Law Attorneys.  Mr. Miller earned his juris doctorate degree from the University of Missouri School of Law in 1999 and graduated with honors from Lincoln University in 1991.  You may find him at www.toddmillerlaw.com (573) 634-2838 or on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.