Estate Planning Blog Articles

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What Happens to a Pet when Owner Dies?

Pet trusts are a legally binding arrangement in which the donor (the person creating the trust) formally outlines their wishes for how they want their pet to be cared for.

A few more people are involved in a pet trust, according to the article “’Paws-ing’ to plan: How you can ensure your pet’s future well-being with pet trust planning” from The Gilmer Mirror. A trustee oversees the way trust funds are dispensed, a caretaker, who is in charge of the pet’s care and an enforcer, who makes sure the donor’s wishes are followed. Donors may appoint a caretaker of their choice, or work with an agent to find someone suitable for their pet.

Unlike an informal promise to care for a pet made by a well-meaning friend or family member, the pet trust is legally enforceable, giving it more “teeth” than a verbal promise. There is nothing to stop the person you leave your pet with from doing whatever they wish with the pet, from leaving the pet at a shelter to selling the pet. With a trust, all parties are bound to use the money for its intended purposes and to follow pet care instructions.

What can you ask your pet’s caretaker to do? Anything you feel is necessary. It can be as basic or as detailed as you wish. The pet could be cared for as they were by you, with the same kind of food, attention and affection. They can also continue to be seen by the same veterinarian, if one is named in the trust.

Pet planning has become increasingly popular, as more people see their pets as members of the family. However, pet trusts are not just for house cats or dogs. Work animals, show animals, specially trained service and companion animals and animals used for breeding are also protected by pet trusts.

A pet trust could ensure the future of a highly trained show jumper, or to ensure a working dog ends up at a farm where she continues to herd sheep.

Pet trusts are especially important for people with service animals. A blind person who has bonded with a seeing-eye dog may only wish another blind person to inherit a seeing-eye dog. The trust could ensure that animals who have been trained to provide emotional support, or to detect health conditions like seizures, should go to individuals with these same challenges.

Individuals who live with highly trained service animals should consult an experienced estate planning attorney along with the organization that trained the animal to ensure a pet trust is created within the scope and requirements of the organization, as well as the wishes of the owner. The organization may be better able to place the animal, while adhering to the pet trust’s requirements.

A pet trust helps protect our beloved animal companions and provides peace of mind for their humans. It should be part of your overall estate plan and should be updated regularly.

Reference: The Gilmer Mirror (March 23, 2022) “’Paws-ing’ to plan: How you can ensure your pet’s future well-being with pet trust planning”

letter of instruction

Should You Include a Letter of Instruction with Your Estate Plan?

A letter of instruction, or LOI, is a good addition to the documents included in your estate plan. It’s commonly used to express advice, wishes and practical information to help the people who will be taking care of your affairs, if you become incapacitated or die. According to this recent article “Letter of instruction in elder law estate plan can help with managing important information” from the Times Herald-Record, there are many different ways an LOI can help.

In our digital world, you might want to use your LOI to record website names, usernames and passwords for social media accounts, online accounts and other digital assets. This helps loved ones who you want to have access to your online life.

If you have minor children who are beneficiaries, the LOI is a good way to share your priorities to the trustee on your wishes for the funds left for their care. It is common to leave money in trust for HEMS—for “Health, Education, Maintenance and Support.” However, you may want to be more specific, both about how money is to be spent and to share your thoughts about the path you’d like their lives to take in your absence.

Art collectors or anyone who owns valuable items, like musical instruments, antiques or collectibles may use the LOI as an inventory that will be greatly appreciated by your executor. By providing a carefully created list of the items and any details, you’ll increase the likelihood that the collections will be considered by a potential purchaser. This would also be a good place to include any resources about the collections that you know of, but your heirs may not, like appraisers.

Animal lovers can use an LOI to share personalities, likes, dislikes and behavioral quirks of beloved pets, so their new caregivers will be better prepared. In most states, a pet trust can be created to name a caregiver and a trustee for funds that are designated for the pet’s care. The caregiver and the trustee may be the same person, or they may be two different individuals.

For families who have a special needs member, an LOI is a useful means of sharing important information about the person and is often referred to as a “Letter of Intent.” It works in tandem with a Special Needs Trust, which is created to leave assets to a person who receives government benefits without putting means-tested benefits in jeopardy. If there is no Special Needs Trust and the person receives an inheritance, they could lose access to their benefits.

Some of the information in a Letter of Intent includes information on the nature of the disability, daily routines, medications, fears, preferred activities and anything that would help a caregiver provide better care, if the primary caregiver dies.

The LOI can also be used to provide basic information, like where important documents are kept, who should be notified in case of death or incapacity, which bills should be paid, what home maintenance tasks need to be taken care of and who provides the services, etc. It is a useful document to help those you leave behind to adjust to their new responsibilities and care for loved ones.

Reference: Times Herald-Record (Sep. 8, 2020) “Letter of instruction in elder law estate plan can help with managing important information”

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