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Should We Set Up Legal Trusts For Our Pets?

15/07/2015 11:29 BST | Updated 10/07/2016 10:59 BST

I've written about why we should give our pets a better send-off, but what happens if we die before them? To put it bluntly, how do we ensure our beloved pets don't end up at an animal shelter for re-homing or, in the worse case, are euthanised? In the US, so-called 'Pet Trusts' are now mainstream, but the concept of having a legally binding document to care for our pets after our deaths is not one that's commonplace in the UK. Indeed, a quick Google search yielded no results for UK legal provisions for pets upon the death of an owner. Increasingly, wills are starting to include such provisions, but many people are simply making informal arrangements that are not legally binding, and are thus liable to fail.

Worryingly, people over 60 are the least likely to make specific provisions for their pets, according to research by over-50s specialist firm Saga. But what happens if family or friends decide that taking on a pet is too much for them? The average lifetime cost of owning a dog is estimated at £17,000 according to a recent survey, and almost a quarter of people who inherit a dog would re-home it or have it put down. No stats are available for the percentage who would consider euthanasia, but the very fact that some people do means the stakes are so high that it's vital pet owners make proper provision for their pets. As well as wills, there is something called a 'discretionary trust' which gifts a set amount of money to the trustee, the new owner, which expires upon the death of the pet. Any money left over would then be given to a named beneficiary, who could be the original trustee.

It's certainly worth thinking about and planning for the kinds of bills that the average pet will accrue during its lifetime and making set provision for these. Think about vets bills, pet insurance (if applicable), food, medical history, and dietary requirements. Saga has very helpfully produced a guide and a form that can help pet owners. It's a useful checklist that will help anyone worrying about what to do if their pets are likely to outlive them. Even if you're fit and healthy, it doesn't hurt to take a look, and, if you have a will already, to consider setting aside provision for a pet. The RSPCA also offers a free service to pet owners which finds a new home for a pet after the owner dies: http://www.homeforlife.org.uk

What about Pet Trusts? Will they ever come across the Pond? It's a wonder they have not already. We're a nation of animal lovers but many people die and leave no provision for their pets. How many times have you seen rescue centres seeking new homes for pets whose owners have died? There is an organisation for older pets called The Oldies Club. There are lots of dear older dogs whose beloved owners have died and left their pets with no provision. Pets, particularly dogs, are sentient creatures and will struggle with the loss of their owner. Imagine the suffering of the poor dog that has also to contend with losing their home and everything and everyone they're familiar with all at the same time?

The difference between Pet Trusts and discretionary trusts is that the former has no human beneficiary. In theory, unscrupulous trustees could spend money left to them in a discretionary trust on other items. Pet trusts are much tighter and trustees are held much more to account for how they spend the money left to the pet. In the US, lawyers with a specialism in 'pet law' are increasingly mainstream. The typical amount set aside in a pet trust is around $25,000. There are some interesting cases at the top end. In 1993, tobacco heiress Doris Duke left $100,000 to her dog Rodeo, a Shar-Pei. A will written by actress Betty White is reported to have left all of her $5 million estate to her pets. Dusty Springfield's 1999 will specified that a bequest for her cat Nicholas be spent on a lifetime supply of his favourite meal of imported baby food.

These are, of course, extreme examples, but the point should not be lost that it's so very important to make specific provision for pets. This should particularly be the case if the pet is older or has a medical condition(s) that will make it more difficult for them to be rehomed if the pet owner dies first.

Marie Carter is the Editor and Publisher of Pets Magazine, a unique leading lifestyle magazine for pet owners, with a monthly readership of 24,000 and a social media (Klout) score that puts it in the top 5 per cent of influencers.