Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Protecting Four-Legged Loved Ones

The subject of today's blog started as a joke over the holidays as I discussed with a number of friends my desire to expose more people to the information in our blog. Those friends informed me that the most successful blogs they know of deal primarily with pictures of cute animals and/or celebrity gossip. In honor of that discussion, I start today's blog with this adorable photo.

While we do not intend to make a habit of luring readership to our site with adorable puppy pictures, we are not opposed to an occasional cute picture in order to educate people about the estate planning process.

For most people, the process of estate planning revolves around ensuring that their assets go to the people they care for and that sufficient protections are in place so that those assets are put to the greatest possible use. For some people this means establishing 529 Education Savings Plans to ensure that funds are available for children or grandchildren to attend college. For others it means limitations on the distribution of trust principal to ensure that beneficiaries with spending issues or other personal issues have a source of income over their lifetimes. Often forgotten in the estate planning process is the fact that a person's loved ones sometimes include nonhuman companions that will also require care after their owner has died. While it is certainly possible to nominate an individual to care for a loved pet and leave that person funds for that purpose, the use of a pet trust ensures that those funds are used only for the benefit of the pet and the new owner does not skimp on the pet’s care to supplement their own income.
Currently forty-eight states, including Michigan, allow for the creation of a trust for the benefit of animals. These trusts, commonly known as Pet Trusts, allow people to ensure that assets are available to provide for their furry friends after they are gone. In Michigan, Pet Trusts are governed by MCL 700.2722. This statute formalizes the principle that the care of a pet is a lawful, noncharitable purpose, for which the trust can be created. Furthermore, the statute creates a presumption against construing a bequest for the benefit of the pet as merely precatory or honorary, thus discouraging courts from refusing to enforce such bequests.
The Michigan statute does however place certain limitations on the use of Pet Trusts. First, the statute limits the term of a Pet Trust to the lifetime of the animal or animals named as beneficiaries. However, the statute recognizes that certain animals have extremely long lifespans and therefore exempts trusts created under the statute from the uniform statutory rule against perpetuities, which would otherwise cause such trusts to fail and be unenforceable. It is possible for a pet trust to provide for multiple generations of animals or for multiple animals of varying ages. Second, the statute specifically allows the probate court to reduce the amount of property transferred to the trust if the court determines that the amount designated substantially exceeds the amount required to care for the animal. When a court makes this determination, the amount of reduction passes pursuant to the terms of trust as if those assets were not expended caring for the animal. This means that as in the case of Leona Helmsley, who attempted to leave her dog, "Trouble", $12,000,000 in the trust fund, the probate court is free to determine the amount of assets needed to care for a pet over its remaining expected lifespan. In the case of Trouble, it is worth noting that the probate court determined that a reasonable sum to provide care for the rest of his lifetime was only $2,000,000.
For those people who are not real estate moguls with the desire to keep their Maltese in handmade dog food and fur coats for the rest of their lives, a pet trust still provides an excellent resource for ensuring care of their animal companions and encouraging a two legged loved one to take the pet into their home. When creating a pet trust it is important to remember three things. First, as discussed, it is important to determine how much to leave in trust for the pet’s care. You should also determine what happens to any amount left in trust at the death of the pet. As with any other residuary distribution from a trust, the grantor can determine how such funds are distributed. In the simplest case, any remaining funds are distributed to the other beneficiaries. Alternately, if the grantor is charitably inclined, remaining funds could be used to benefit charitable organizations including the ASPCA, Humane Society, or World Wildlife Fund. In addition, it is important to name individuals who you wish to care for your pets. A pet trust does very little good if there is not a human alive to expend the trust assets for the pet’s benefit. From a common sense perspective, it is preferable to name someone other than the Trustee of the trust as the guardian for the pet, thus ensuring that there is supervision over the use of the assets. Lastly, it is important to remember that pet trusts are not limited to dogs and cats. The statute allows the creation of the trust for any animal, thus it is possible to ensure that funds are available to care for large animals such as horses or long-lived animals such as turtles long after the original owner has passed away.
As with any other form of trust is important to work with a knowledgeable and licensed attorney to ensure the observation of the legal formalities of creating a trust and that the trust is enforceable. Planning for the long-term care of an animal is as complex as planning for the long-term care of any other loved one, but with the proper assistance it is possible to ensure that all of our friends and family, on two legs or four, receive the best possible care even after we are gone.

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