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If your household is anything like mine, you treat your cherished pets like members of the family. If you were to pass away or become disabled, what would become of your pet? While you would like to think that your family or friends would assume a caretaking role in your absence, that is not always a realistic assumption. Nor would they be under any obligation to do so. The unfortunate reality is that many pets end up abandoned when their owners are no longer alive or able to care for them.

Therefore, it may be prudent to incorporate proper care for your pet in your estate plan, to ensure their continued well-being. Forty-six states plus the District of Columbia have enacted pet trust laws. Given the profound bonds of love and companionship between pet owners and their pets, it is no surprise that pet trusts have gained in popularity.

The late hotel magnate, Leona Helmsley, made headlines by providing in her estate plan for a $12 million trust for the benefit of her Maltese, Trouble. The pet trust created by Ms. Helmsley for Trouble was ultimately reduced under New York law as being too excessive. While a bequest to your pet is permissible, it must be done within the parameters of the law. Beware that laws concerning pet trusts differ from state to state.

In New Jersey, a trust may be created for the care of a domesticated animal. The trust instrument names a trustee to carry out the terms of the trust and the intentions of the pet owner. If no trustee is designated or if no designated trustee is willing to serve, a court may appoint a trustee and make such orders and determinations as are necessary to carry out the pet owner’s intent. No portion of the trust’s income or principal may be converted to the use of the trustee or to any use other than for the benefit of the animal designated in the trust.

The New Jersey statute provides that the trust terminates when no living animal is covered by the trust, or at the end of 21 years, whichever occurs earlier. Upon termination of the trust, the trustee must transfer the unspent trust property as directed in the trust instrument (to a human beneficiary, for example), or if there is no such direction, to the estate of the creator of the trust. A New Jersey court may reduce the amount of property transferred to the trust if it determines that the amount substantially exceeds the amount required for the intended use. The amount of any such reduction must be transferred as directed in the trust instrument or, if no directions are contained in the trust instrument, to the estate of the creator of the trust.

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The trust generally directs the trustee to apply so much income or principal for the benefit of the pet as the trustee deems necessary for the care, feeding, comfort, maintenance and medical treatment of the pet, even though such expenditures may result in the exhaustion of the trust. However, the trust can be customized to meet the particular wishes of the pet owner or needs of the pet. Typically, pet trusts are established under the pet owner’s Will, but they can also be established during the pet owner’s life, in the form of an Inter-vivos or Living Trust.

In this day and age where pets are often regarded as members of the family, pet owners are becoming more mindful of planning in the event of their death or disability. Pet trusts and other estate planning methods can be utilized to protect pets and guarantee their continued care and well-being.