Future Returns: Why Fido Needs a Trust
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Future Returns: Why Fido Needs a Trust

When it comes to estate planning, pets need to be considered, too.

Wed, Apr 20, 2022 10:21amGrey Clock 4 min

Many well-off pet owners have left millions of dollars to their cats, dogs, and even chickens—perhaps most notoriously Leona Helmsley, who left US$12 million when she died in 2007 to her white Maltese dog Trouble.

But because pets are considered property, individuals can’t directly bequeath money to their dog or cat. Instead, they should make some type of arrangement to care for their beloved animals should they become incapacitated or die, according to Annamaria Vitelli, head of PNC Private Bank Hawthorn.

“Pet trusts are often thought of as something wealthy eccentric folks would do,” Vitelli says. “But now it’s becoming mainstream.”

The reason? Close to 70% of households in the U.S. own a pet, she says, so “70% of households need to think about this.”

Also, as of 2016, all 50 states and Washington, D.C., have created statutory provisions for pet trusts, Vitelli says.

At Hawthorn, pets often come up in wealth planning as advisors get to know and understand the families they work with and recognize the value they place on their critters. As the bank has worked more with families in Texas, they are also having conversations with ranch owners about what will happen to horses that aren’t part of a working farm, but are pets, Vitelli says.

Penta recently spoke with Vitelli about what pet owners need to consider when ensuring the care of their non-human loved ones.

Selecting a Caregiver

Whatever plan a family creates for their pet’s future, the main consideration is designating a reliable caregiver, Vitelli says.

Many pet owners have trusted family members and friends who already lend a hand in caring for their pets. Those who don’t have that kind of social network should research organizations that care for animals or animal sanctuaries that can provide for a pet with money set aside by the pet owner.

Vitelli recalls a client who had a parrot and was concerned about who would care for her bird when she died because some parrots can live for 100 years. “The parrot went to a bird sanctuary with their stipend and was being cared for at the sanctuary,” Vitelli says.

It’s also important pet owners let the caregiver they designate know their intentions and understand what’s involved. “You may have the perfect person in your mind, but you shouldn’t spring it on them at the reading of the will—start talking to them now,” she says.

Some potential caregivers may simply not want to do it, or they may be precluded from taking in a pet for some reason. Also, because a caregiver’s circumstances can change, no longer allowing them to care for a pet, it’s important to name a successor who can step in, Vitelli says.

Picking a Pet Trust

Once a caregiver is selected, pet owners can simply set up an informal arrangement with them that includes funds bequeathed in their will to cover costs. But there is no way to legally ensure that any funds designated this way are used to care for a pet. That may not be an issue for those who can rely on trustworthy family members or friends. But for those who have doubts, or don’t have the perfect person to rely on, it’s best to create a more formal structure.

“As much as we love our pets, the law doesn’t recognize pets as people. They are a piece of property, so once you give that property away, how it’s treated by the person who takes it on is not anything you can enforce,” Vitelli says.

Setting up a pet trust can create that assurance. The simplest is a traditional trust, which would be governed by general trust law. In this case, a pet owner needs to name a beneficiary (the caregiver) and needs to fund the trust with sufficient money to care for the pet. A trust also requires a trustee, most likely another individual who can make sure any funds distributed from the trust are spent according to a pet owner’s wishes, and that the pet is healthy and safe.

“So long as the trust complies with the law of the state in which it is created, and state law enforces conditional distributions from a trust, the care of your pet can be enforced in court,” according to a note to client from PNC Private Bank.

State Law Matters

Another option is a statutory trust, which would be governed by the law of each specific state. As with a traditional vehicle, a statutory trust is enforceable, although it must comply with state law. Because these laws can be wildly different state-to-state, it’s important to work with an attorney who knows the statute and can draft a trust.

Pennsylvania, for instance, requires a trust to end when the last pet covered by the contract dies, while other states may limit the trust’s length to at most 21 years. While that accounts for the life of most pets, many animals can live longer.

PNC advises clients to put a reasonable amount of money in a trust to cover a pet’s needs throughout its life, and to make a plan for unused funds to be returned to their estate. But how much is reasonable? That can be difficult for some families to decide, particularly when they are childless and pets stand in for two-legged family members. “It has more to do sometimes with the endearment of that pet to that family member,” Vitelli says.

Also, some states limit how much money a pet can receive, and, as is the case in Florida, penalize “overfunding.” In the year after Helmsley died, for instance, a Manhattan surrogate court judge reduced her dog Trouble’s inheritance from US$12 million to US$2 million, awarded US$6 million to two grandchildren who had been disinherited, and had the remainder go to Helmsley’s charitable fund.

“You just want to make sure you’re not running afoul of a judge’s sensibilities and state rules,” Vitelli says.


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Capri Coffer socks away $600 a month to help fund her travels. The Atlanta health-insurance account executive and her husband couldn’t justify a family vacation to the Dominican Republic this summer, though, given what she calls “astronomical” plane ticket prices of $800 each.

The price was too high for younger family members, even with Coffer defraying some of the costs.

Instead, the family of six will pile into a rented minivan come August and drive to Hilton Head Island, S.C., where Coffer booked a beach house for $650 a night. Her budget excluding food for the two-night trip is about $1,600, compared with the $6,000 price she was quoted for a three-night trip to Punta Cana.

“That way, everyone can still be together and we can still have that family time,” she says.

With hotel prices and airfares stubbornly high as the 2023 travel rush continues—and overall inflation squeezing household budgets—this summer is shaping up as the season of travel trade-offs for many of us.

Average daily hotel rates in the top 25 U.S. markets topped $180 year-to-date through April, increasing 9.9% from a year ago and 15.6% from 2019, according to hospitality-data firm STR.

Online travel sites report more steep increases for summer ticket prices, with Kayak pegging the increase at 35% based on traveler searches. (Perhaps there is no more solid evidence of higher ticket prices than airline executives’ repeated gushing about strong demand, which gives them pricing power.)

The high prices and economic concerns don’t mean we’ll all be bunking in hostels and flying Spirit Airlines with no luggage. Travellers who aren’t going all-out are compromising in a variety of ways to keep the summer vacation tradition alive, travel agents and analysts say.

“They’re still out there and traveling despite some pretty real economic headwinds,” says Mike Daher, Deloitte’s U.S. transportation, hospitality and services leader. “They’re just being more creative in how they spend their limited dollars.”

For some, that means a cheaper hotel. Hotels.com says global search interest in three-star hotels is up more than 20% globally. Booking app HotelTonight says nearly one in three bookings in the first quarter were for “basic” hotels, compared with 27% in the same period in 2019.

For other travellers, the trade-offs include a shorter trip, a different destination, passing on premium seat upgrades on full-service airlines or switching to no-frills airlines. Budget-airline executives have said on earnings calls that they see evidence of travellers trading down.

Deloitte’s 2023 summer travel survey, released Tuesday, found that average spending on “marquee” trips this year is expected to decline to $2,930 from $3,320 a year ago. Tighter budgets are a factor, he says.

Too much demand

Wendy Marley is no economics teacher, but says she’s spent a lot of time this year refreshing clients on the basics of supply and demand.

The AAA travel adviser, who works in the Boston area, says the lesson comes up every time a traveler with a set budget requests help planning a dreamy summer vacation in Europe.

“They’re just having complete sticker shock,” she says.

Marley has become a pro at Plan B destinations for this summer.

For one client celebrating a 25th wedding anniversary with a budget of $10,000 to $12,000 for a five-star June trip, she switched their attention from the pricey French Riviera or Amalfi Coast to a luxury resort on the Caribbean island of St. Barts.

To Yellowstone fans dismayed at ticket prices into Jackson, Wyo., and three-star lodges going for six-star prices, she recommends other national parks within driving distance of Massachusetts, including Acadia National Park in Maine.

For clients who love the all-inclusive nature of cruising but don’t want to shell out for plane tickets to Florida, she’s been booking cruises out of New York and New Jersey.

Not all of Marley’s clients are tweaking their plans this summer.

Michael McParland, a 78-year-old consultant in Needham, Mass., and his wife are treating their family to a luxury three-week Ireland getaway. They are flying business class on Aer Lingus and touring with Adventures by Disney. They initially booked the trip for 2020, so nothing was going to stand in the way this year.

McParland is most excited to take his teen grandsons up the mountain in Northern Ireland where his father tended sheep.

“We decided a number of years ago to give our grandsons memories,” he says. “Money is money. They don’t remember you for that.”

Fare first, then destination

Chima Enwere, a 28-year old piano teacher in Fayetteville, N.C., is also headed to the U.K., but not by design.

Enwere, who fell in love with Europe on trips the past few years, let airline ticket prices dictate his destination this summer to save money.

He was having a hard time finding reasonable flights out of Raleigh-Durham, N.C., so he asked for ideas in a Facebook travel group. One traveler found a round-trip flight on Delta to Scotland for $900 in late July with reasonable connections.

He was budgeting $1,500 for the entire trip—he stays in hostels to save money—but says he will have to spend more given the pricier-than-expected plane ticket.

“I saw that it was less than four digits and I just immediately booked it without even asking questions,” he says.


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