For most people, pets aren’t just animals—they’re the excited “hello” when we get home from a long day of work, they’re our snuggle buddies, our jogging partners, our best friends and, ultimately, part of the family… right? Although we might view our pets as family members, the law doesn’t.

In Arizona (as in many other states) pets are considered property. That means Uncle Bill can’t deed his house to his 50-pound French bulldog and Great Aunt Suzy can’t open up a bank account for her two Siamese cats.

Still, there are a couple different ways to make sure your pets are taken care of after you pass away. The simplest way is to make arrangements to leave your animals with a friend or trusted family member along with a gift recognizing the sacrifice they’ll be making to care of the animal. Note that I called that a “gift” because your friend or family member could (theoretically) take the money and not the pet.

Another way to make sure that your pet is taken care of is to leave her to a no-kill animal shelter, such as Friends for Life. However, the shelter can be a stressful experience for many animals and there’s no guarantee the home your pet is adopted into will be a good fit. There’s also no guarantee the shelter will have space for the animal… and then what?

Pet trusts may help. Arizona statute expressly allows the creation of trusts intended to care for an animal alive during a Settlor’s lifetime. See A.R.S. § 14-10408.

Generally, the pet trust will terminate upon the death of the animal or the death of the last surviving animal covered by the trust. Arizona law doesn’t leave much direction beyond that, though an experienced estate planning attorney should be able to create a pet trust to fit your needs or incorporate pet trust provisions into a more comprehensive estate plan.

Considering a pet trust? Here are some things to think about before meeting with an attorney:

  1. Who will be your pet’s guardian? Deciding who will care for your pets is one of the biggest decisions you can make. Do you want your pets to stay together? Or would they be okay to go to different homes? Is there a person your pets have always been fond of? You can also (and should) think about alternate guardians in the event that your first choice of guardian is unable to take care for your pets.
  2. How much money to put into the pet trust? One of the biggest benefits of pet trusts is the peace of mind that comes from knowing the money must be used for the care of your pet, but deciding how much money your pets will need can be tricky. Here are a few things to consider: your pet’s age, the number of pets that need to be cared for, and the standard of care your pet is accustomed to, and the likelihood you’ll adopt new pets.
  3. Do you want your guardian to provide a certain standard of care? Unlike the methods discussed above, pet trusts allow you to give some direction about how the money should be used. For example, if your cat is accustomed to a certain brand of cat food or your dog looks forward to monthly trips to the groomer, you can earmark money specifically for that purpose. You can also specify a certain standard of medical care that you would like your guardian to adhere to. For example, if your pet needs an expensive surgery, should the guardian obtain it? Or should your guardian try to keep your pet comfortable as inexpensively as possible? Does your pet need annual or bi-annual checkups? What about elective surgery? Should your guardian be able to declaw your cat?
  4. Who will be the Trustee? Your trustee is in charge of administering the trust. This means your trustee will hold and manage the money and will make payments to the guardian on a regular basis for the care of the pet. Do you want the trustee and the guardian to be the same person? Or would you like a second set of eyes to make sure your pet is receiving the right amount of love and care?
  5. How do you want your pet to be cared for in the event of your incapacity? Something that is often overlooked is how your pet will be cared for in the event that you become incapacitated. Pet trusts close this gap by providing detailed instructions for what should happen to your pet in the event you become disabled or incapacitated. Are there any instructions you would like to give a caregiver in the event you have a medical emergency? If you become incapacitated, should your pet be placed with the new guardian immediately or should your pet stay with you as long as possible?

As with everything, a little planning goes a long way. A pet trust (or adding pet care provisions to a more comprehensive trust) can be a useful tool to make sure your furry family member isn’t left behind.  For more information, contact attorney Sarah Clifford.