Understanding Pet Trusts and Pet Custody:
Most people see their pets as part of their families, so it only makes sense that they want to protect their cats and dogs when dealing with family law issues and planning their estates. The bad news is that most courts see pets as property. The good news is that there are steps you can take to legally protect your pet, regardless.
We know we’d do anything to protect our office dog, Rocky.
Including Your Pet in Your Estate Plan
Deciding what happens to your pet when you die can be a stressful prospect but planning ahead can help ensure your pet gets the love and attention it deserves after you’re gone. You can start by leaving your pet to a friend or family member in your will, but keep in mind what happens to your pet from this point forward is not enforceable.
If you name a caretaker in your will, be sure to talk to them about it and prepare them for your pet’s needs. You may want to name more than one friend or family member in case your preferred caretaker is unavailable or unwilling to care for your pet. PetFinder recommends giving your potential caretakers keys to your home, feeding and care instructions and your veterinarian’s contact information.
Although your will can only do so much when it comes to providing for your pet, and you cannot leave money behind to pets, you can create a trust for your pet and any potential caregivers.
Pet trusts allow you to name a caretaker and bestow a financial responsibility unto that caretaker. Your trustee will distribute funds that allow the caretaker to provide for your pet. Both the trustee and the beneficiary (your pet’s new caregiver) will have a fiduciary obligation to make sure that trust funds are used in the way you intended.
Because the caretaker is receiving the money to look after your pet, they cannot treat your pet like any other piece of property. You can also name an alternate guardian in the trust and provide instructions for what happens when your pet joins you on the other side.
Establishing a pet trust is one of the only ways to keep your pet out of a shelter and make sure they receive the care they need.
Who Gets the Dog?
If you’re going through a divorce, you may be wondering who gets to keep the family pet. The best way to resolve this dispute is to make a private agreement with your attorneys and keep the matter out of court. As we mentioned earlier, courts see pets as property, so judges will decide what happens to your pet in the same way they decide what happens to your couch. If you owned the pet before getting married, the pet will likely go to you, but if you adopted the pet with your spouse, the pet is a marital asset and will be “divided” as such. Although unlikely, the judge could technically order you to sell your pet and split the profits.
The only real difference between your pet and your sofa arises when children are involved. Family law courts always act in the best interests of children, so the judge may award the family dog to the custodial parent to help make the kids happy.
Family law courts in Wisconsin do not have the resources to handle pet custody cases, so they will not help you create or enforce a time-sharing plan for your cat, dog, or any other animal. If you want to arrange visits or share custody of the family pet, you will need to decide what to do privately.
Private contracts can have strange clauses, but they are still legally enforceable. If you draft an agreement in your lawyer’s office, you may be able to take it to court if the matter comes up. While this legal document can provide comfort, the best solution for you, your spouse, and your pet is to make an agreement and stick to it — without involving the courts.
Mediation can be a great way to decide who gets the family pet.
Getting Legal Help
Whether it’s time to move out of your ex’s house or prepare for the long-term future, the Law Offices of Mark S. Knutson, S.C. can help protect you and your pets. We have over 50 years of combined legal experience, and we understand what’s important to you.
Our practice is based on mutual respect, and our services are client-focused. We can help make sure the law works for you.
Call us at (262) 205-0705 when you’re ready or contact us online to schedule your free consultation today.