Lin Hanson, a lawyer with the firm DiMonte & Lizak, L.L.C., recognized this “gap” in estate planning when he encountered numerous clients who did not have family or friends that they felt would adequately care for their pets after the owners passed away. Consequently, in 2004, Hanson researched the laws in the 19 states that recognized pet trusts, and he and a group of concerned lawyers drafted proposed legislation that ultimately became H.B. 1027. The General Assembly passed the bill, and effective January 1, 2005, the Pet Trust Act permitted people in Illinois to create trusts for the benefit of one or more of their companion animals through their estate plans. The Pet Trust Act can be found at 760 ILCS 5/15.2 (West 2008).
Concerned pet owners can now set aside funds for the care of their animals, and can designate a trustee to manage the fund for the care, support and medical needs of their pets. They also can name the physical custodian of their pet.
Following the death of the pet, the Act provides for three possible distributions of any remaining trust property. First, the pet owner can designate who shall receive the property. If no such provision is made, but the person has a general or residuary beneficiary who takes the remainder of his estate, that person will receive the remainder of the pet trust. Finally, if there is no other beneficiary, the property in the pet trust will devise to the heirs of the person who established the trust, as determined by Illinois intestacy laws.
Sometimes we hear stories about eccentric wealthy people leaving millions of dollars for the care of a dog or cat. For example, in her will, Leona Helmsley set aside $12 million for the care of her white Maltese, “Trouble.” The Illinois Pet Trust Act addresses this, by allowing the supervising judge to reduce the amount of the gift to what is reasonably necessary for the care of the designated animal or animals. Hanson recommends counseling your client to leave just enough in the trust for the pet’s needs, but not an “exorbitant” sum. This will reduce the likelihood that the trust will be legally challenged. After all, you wouldn’t want to open the door for a disgruntled heir to argue that your client was mentally incompetent at the time the trust was drafted.
Creating pet trusts has become one of the fastest growing areas of animal law. Attorneys who have a practice that focuses on estate planning should become familiar with the Pet Trust Act. When interviewing clients about their proposed estate plan, it is important to inquire if your client has pets, and if he or she would be interested in establishing a pet trust as part of their overall estate plan. Imagine the peace of mind you can provide for your clients, knowing that they have set aside funds and designated a person to care for their beloved pets after they are gone. ■