What? A “Pet trust”? Pets as our “children”? We are supposed to consider including our pet animals – dogs, cats, birds, etc – as “family members” and “loved ones” who should be covered in our testamentary trust or will and our estate planning? Aren’t these just mere “animals”?
Well, not quite so any more these days!
Americans own a huge number of pets, including about 68 million dogs and 73 million cats, according to a 2000 estimate by the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association. What is even particularly fundamental, however, from the sociological standpoint and the transformation of the American society, is this: That for a great many Americans, and a growing number of them, their home pets are now considered a bona fide “member of the family,” and not just “animals” any more.
An October 1999 survey by the USA Today newspaper, for example, found that more than 66% of American pet owners said they consider their pets “a member of the family.” In a more recent survey by the American Animal Hospital Association, a whopping 84% of American pet owners were reported to think of their animal companions as being their kids.
In deed, a more telling indices of the dramatic evolution of the pet from mere ‘animals’ towards the highly exulted status of a ‘family member’ in the American society, is the general attitude of the pet owners towards their pets and simply the way they treat, regard and relate with their pets. For example, according to surveys, some 79% of pet owners allow their pets to sleep in their beds with them, while 3% of them even count pets in the number of IRS withholdings they claim for tax purposes. The evidence is simply astounding: 50% of American pet owners talk “baby talk” to their pets; 37% of them carry a picture of their pets in their wallets; 27% of them include their pets in their testamentary trusts or wills; while 8% buy health insurance for their pets. There’s more. Nowadays, the “custody fights” over pets among divorcing couples who own pets, are among the most hotly contested issues in divorce proceedings; pet owners now throw lavish wedding and birthday parties for dogs, cats, and other pet animals, more adults today have pets than children, and so on and on.
Summed up simply, just about all those kinds of special rights, privileges and actions that have traditionally been reserved for and directed towards protecting and caring for human children, are, today, now used to protect and care for pets, as well. In other words, gradually but surely, there is now in the American society a new and increasingly significant kind of “family members” and “children.” It’s called the NON-human or pet animal family members and children!
And that brings us to this major question: how has the American law evolved in response to this developing new sociological reality in the American society? In terms of providing our new-found pet animal “infant children” the essential legal rights, care and protections as would be fitting for our human “infant children”? Suffice it simply to say, that a new specialized area of law has developed in the American jurisprudence pertaining to this issue. One significant aspect of it is what is known as the “pet trust” law. In point of fact, the American pet owners have for centuries expressed concerns and interest in establishing an estate plan for their animals in the same manner as people plan for their spouses and children, but that general impulse had for so long been resisted by the State legislatures and the Courts based on one legal rationale or the other. However, beginning in the 1990s, under the guidelines established by the National Conference of Commissioners of Uniform State Laws, State legislatures (at least 40 of them as of 2006) and the courts have adopted laws which address precisely those concerns and now permit the creation of trusts specifically for the custody and care of designated pets and their offspring in times of the incapacity or death of their owner.
Basically, with a legally valid ‘pet trust,’ you (the pet owner) can make specific provisions as to the care of your pets in the event of your disability or death, and provide for a reliable caretaker and funding arrangement for the pet all of which will be legally enforceable by the courts. Thus, with the “pet trust,” a relatively recent estate planning tool applicable for pet animals, you can assure that in the event of any such emergency, your pets will not likely wind up in the shelter or pound somewhere awaiting euthanasia, but will be taken into a safe home and will be properly cared for by a responsible, caring caretaker.