A trust really isn’t as complicated as it first may seem. After all, there are only three parties to a trust.

A Settlor, Trustee, & Beneficiary

A trust is created when a property owner transfers the property to a person with the intent that the recipient holds the property for the benefit of someone else. So, there are three parties to a trust: (1) the owner who transfers the property (the settlor, or sometimes called the donor or grantor); (2) the person receiving the property (the trustee); and (3) the person for whose benefit the property is being held (the beneficiary).

Three men walking down the street

Note that although a trust involves three parties, it does not require three persons. One person can play multiple roles. For example, in a typical revocable inter vivos trust, it is quite common for the person establishing the trust to be the initial trustee and the principal beneficiary. In this situation, one person is all three parties—they are the settlor, the trustee, and the beneficiary.

What a Merger Means

There is one limitation to the rule of one person wearing multiple hats. The same person cannot be the sole trustee and the sole beneficiary of the trust. In such an event, it is said merger occurs, and the trust is terminated. Why so? The essence of a trust is that it divides legal title from beneficial ownership, and merger ends this division.

In practical terms, however, merger is rarely an issue. “Wait!” you shout. You just said that in a typical revocable inter vivos trust, the person establishing the trust can be trustee and beneficiary. Yes, in this situation one person is all three parties—the settlor, the trustee, and the beneficiary. But, in almost all situations, one person isn’t the sole beneficiary. Such a trust will designate other beneficiaries who will benefit from the property after the settlor’s death. So, one person can indeed wear three hats.

Let’s Talk More About Trusts

Trusts aren’t that difficult to understand and also can be an effective estate planning tool to meet your wealth transmission goals. Want to learn more? Email me at gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com. I offer a free one-hour consultation to everyone, without any obligation. I’d be happy to talk to you at any time.

woman with tattoos

A will is the bedrock of every estate plan. But, even though most people know they should have one, they don’t know what a will is, what goes in it, or how it works. In fact, only one in four adults in America (25%) has a will—that’s roughly the same number who have tattoos (23%). Look at it this way: you can take your tattoo to the grave, but your assets that stay above ground need to be administered properly.

Wills: the bottom line

A will is a legal document that provides for the orderly distribution of your personal property at death according to your wishes. It spells out your directions regarding other important matters such as the care of any minor children, the transition of business assets, and the naming of an executor who will oversee its directives are followed.

What if you DON’T have a will

Not having a will means the judicial system (the “court”) will end up administrating your estate through the lengthy process of probate in accordance with state intestate laws. There is no guarantee this process will result in dispersing your assets in the way you would have wanted. This process can cost your family not only a lot of time and money, but it can also lead to anxiety and heartache.

Will is NOT an estate plan, and vice versa

The will is the bedrock document of every estate plan, and it’s a little more complicated than other documents. With your will, you’ll be answering four basic but very important questions. I’ll list the questions, then discuss each separately.

a. Who do you want to have your stuff?

b. Who do you want to be in charge of carrying out your wishes as expressed in the will?

c. Who do you want to take care of your children? If you have minor children (i.e., children under age 18), you’ll want to designate a legal guardian(s) who will take care of your children until they are adults.

d. What charities do you want to benefit when you’re gone. A will is a great way to benefit your favorite nonprofits.

Who do you want to have your stuff?

A will provides orderly distribution of your property at death according to your wishes. Your property includes both tangible and intangible things. (An example of tangible items would be your coin collection. An example of an intangible asset would be stocks.)

A will provides the orderly distribution of your tangible and intangible property at death according to your wishes.

Tangible personal property is usually considered to be everything (other than land) that has physical substance and can be touched, held, and felt. Examples of tangible personal property include furniture, vehicles, baseball cards, jewelry, art, your Great-aunt Millie’s teaspoon collection, and pets. Intangible personal property doesn’t have a physical existence so it can’t be touched, but it nevertheless has value. Your intangible personal property might include bank accounts, stocks, bonds, insurance policies, and retirement benefit accounts.

Most people think “real estate” or “land” when they hear the word “property,” but “property” has a different meaning when it comes to estate planning.

There are generally considered two basic categories of property: real property and personal property. Real property is land and whatever is built on the land, attached to it, or natural to it such houses, barns, grain silos, tile drainage lines, and mineral rights. Personal property is essentially anything that is not real property. Two qualities of personal property to keep in mind: it is moveable and it can be hidden. Jewelry, cash, a pension, and antiques are kinds of personal property.

Example: The fenced acreage you own is real property because it is land that is immovable. But, the cattle on it are personal property because they can be moved—or hidden.

Who’s in charge?

Who do you want to be in charge of carrying out your wishes as expressed in the will?

An executor is a person who’s in charge of your estate plan. You entrust your executor with the authority to ensure that your wishes are carried out and that your affairs are in order.

Managing an estate plan is not an awful job, but it is an awful lot of responsibility. If you have never dealt with the execution of a will, you might not know how time-consuming, complicated, and demanding it can be. You may also be grieving at the deceased’s passing while trying to make sure all particulars are handled properly. It can be a stressful role, to say the least.

When picking an executor, you want to make sure it’s someone you trust, but also someone you know can handle the complexities and responsibilities of the job. We all have people in our lives whom we love, but recognize they’re not dependable when it comes to things like finances and managing paperwork. Choose someone in your life who is organized, detail-oriented, and can take on what is essentially the part-time job of administrating your estate.

If there’s no person in your life you believe trustworthy or capable enough to be your executor, or you don’t want to burden with the role, you have another option: appointing a corporate executor or trustee. You can find corporate executors and trustees at banks and private investment firms. They usually charge a fee based on the size of the estate. But corporate executors and trustees have the advantages of experience, a dedicated staff, and impartiality. The latter quality is particularly important if there are complicated family dynamics, such as blended families or bad blood.

Whether you choose someone you know or appoint a corporate executor or trustee, you need to sit down with that person for a formal discussion. For a friend or family member, make clear why you’ve assigned him or her the role. Avoid surprises: don’t keep the name of your executor a secret. If you chose one of your children to be your executor, make sure to tell the other(s) to avoid hurt feelings and strife after you’re gone.

Additionally, if you have a large or complicated estate, you would like to set up long-term trusts, or you worry about taxes, a corporate executor or trustee might be a good solution.

Who gets the kids?

For parents with minor children (those younger than 18 years old), it is critically important that you designate a guardian(s) who will be legally responsible for their education, health, and physical care until they reach adulthood. Like the executor’s, it is job that requires you choose someone you trust, but it encompasses so much more than the able administration of your estate—and it doesn’t end after the estate is closed.

In most cases, the surviving parent assumes guardianship of children without a Court intervening. However, there are still a number of factors to consider when choosing a guardian, including parenting style, financial situation, religious and personal values, age, and location. You need to have an in-depth conversation with any potential guardian or guardians to confirm everyone is comfortable with the arrangement and that he or she is prepared for this responsibility.

In Iowa, dying without establishing guardianship results in the Court choosing a child or children’s caregiver(s). It considers what is in the best interest of the child and makes a guess as to the person or people a parent would have wanted. The choice might be someone the deceased parent would never have selected—all the more reason to name a legal guardian in your will.

Tattoo estate planning on your to-do list

Go ahead get that tattoo and wear it proud all the way to the very end. But while you’re showing your ink off, also think about what you want to do with all of your assets. Talk to a qualified estate planner or get started with estate planning by filling out my free, no-obligation estate plan questionnaire. Any questions? Don’t hesitate to contact me at gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com or by phone 515-371-6077.

keep estate plan up-to-date

At first, estate planning can seem a bit much. It can be hard to know where to start and what all you need to know. But once you enlist an experienced attorney to act as a guide through the process and go through executing your plan (making it official), you can breath easy. The great news? Once you have your estate plan in place, it never expires. But, it’s not enough just to have an estate plan—you need to keep it current so it reflects changes in your life, as well as changes in applicable laws. Just to take two examples, an outdated estate plan can more easily be challenged in probate court. or create tensions among family members, than one that reflects your current situation.

Ensuring your estate plan is up-to-date is especially important when major changes occur in your life. Here are a few of them:

  • Your marital status changes through marriage or divorce.
  • You might not want a former spouse to inherit any of your assets, but it could happen if your estate plan is not properly revised.
  • You have kids (or more grandkids) as this could change your distribution model.
  • Make sure that your children are represented by a trustworthy guardian in case something happens to you. You will also want to add any additional children as beneficiaries.
  • Your financial situation significantly changes.
  • Your estate plan and its distributions will need to be revised to take into consideration any changes in your income. Did you inherit money or valuable assets? Is your career is suddenly flourishing? Maybe you experienced something that’s called “a liquidity event”—that is, you’re flush with cash from winning the lottery or selling a successful business. Don’t let your good fortune evaporate by ignoring your estate plan.
  • A beneficiary or legal representative dies or becomes unable to fulfill his or her duties.
    • Keep the list of the beneficiaries, guardians, trustees, executors, and agents named in your estate current.
  • You relocate to a different state (or country) or you acquire property in another state.
    • Laws governing wills and probate vary from state to state. So, if you buy property in another state and/or set-up a secondary residence, this needs to be reflected in your estate plan. Are you a snowbird who heads to your house in southern Texas every cold Iowa winter? Make sure the Lone State property is in your estate plan. It can be a huge hassle if your will doesn’t address all of your real estate, not to mention expensive.

I advise clients to review their estate plans every year. If there are any updates or questions it’s recommended that folks meet with their lawyer and other professional advisors. Some clients like to do this around the first of the year, while others prefer picking a date that’s easy to remember, like a birthday or anniversary. Any date will work— the important thing is to do it. Don’t be late, keep your estate plan up-to-date!

doctor and patient

Back before COVID-19 made its way to Iowa I had an appointment at the University of Iowa Hospital. Don’t worry, it was nothing serious. Beyond the facility, technology, and the clearly talented health care providers, what impressed me most was the nurse asked if I had a health care power of attorney and/or living will and if I had them on file there. Of course, I got quite excited that the hospital is putting this important part of estate planning front and center as a part of the checkup where they take your vitals and such.

Now, with a pandemic front and center, this often overlooked step in estate planning is more salient than ever. In case you don’t have a helpful nurse to prompt you to take this important step, allow me to issue the reminder.

Once your estate plan is executed you should store it properly, as well as give a copy of certain documents to your doctor(s). Your doctor doesn’t need your entire estate plan on record, but they should have a copy of your health care power of attorney and health/medical-related documents, such as a living will. You should request these documents to be placed in your medical records.

What Do YOU Want?

A major benefit of this simple action is that if anything unexpected happens, your doctors and their teams will have your detailed wishes readily available. Giving a copy to your health care provider(s) is especially important in the case where you have been incapacitated (such as in a coma or under anesthesia) and want a specific person (like a spouse, adult child, or sibling) to be able to important decisions on your behalf. You want there to be no question as to whom you trust to make those decisions. You also want there to be no questions when it comes to personal choices regarding things like blood transfusions and being kept alive on machines.

Access to Medical Records

When the health care power of attorney goes into effect, your designated representative will also have access to your medical records (which would otherwise be undisclosed due to HIPAA rules). If your doctor has your power of attorney on file, there will be significantly less red tape to your representative accessing essential information.

Remember Revisions

If you make revisions to your estate plan documents, such as who your designated health care representative is or specifics included in your living will make sure you give the updated version to your doctor’s office. You don’t want them operating off of an old version if an emergency occurs.

Questions about estate planning? Think it may be time to update your health care power of attorney document? Don’t hesitate to contact me. Want to get started? A great place to start is with this free, no-obligation estate plan questionnaire.

april fool's day balloons

Hopefully, you didn’t get pranked too bad today or misled by a jokester on social media today. But, if you did, happy April Fool’s Day! We all love a good practical joke now and then, but the subject of estate planning is definitely not one to laugh at. If you already have an estate plan in place, that’s fantastic, but don’t let an old or inadequate estate plan make a fool out of your life, property, and legacy.

Review Your Estate Plan

Let this lighthearted April Fool’s day actually serve as a reminder to review your current documents and determine if you need to consider updated language, additional provisions, or a different strategy (like “upgrading” from a basic will to a trust). When revisiting your estate plan consider these common mistakes I see when reviewing folks’ less-than-optimal documents.

Living Trusts Missing Retirement Plan Lingo

Many people have a valid portion of the estate assets investing in retirements plans like IRAs and 401(k)s. The mistake comes when people designate their revocable living trust as the beneficiary of these plans, but the trust hasn’t been written or updated to grant the trustee the power to manage the accounts placed in the trust. Without vesting this power in the successor trustee (presuming the testator was the initial trustee and then passed away), the trustee can lack the ability to properly deal with the plan assets and unfavorable income tax consequences can occur.

Uncertain if your revocable living trust properly contains the requisite retirement plan lingo? Simply check with an experienced estate planning attorney and invest in amending.

Outdated Living Wills

Also known as an “advanced medical directive,” your living will should contain the appropriate Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (more commonly referred to as HIPAA) language. (HIPAA involves privacy and who can and cannot have access to your medical records.) If your living will was drafted pre-2001 (before Congress passed new rules governing the Act) it likely doesn’t contain the essential references to HIPPA. I’ve even seen some living wills written well after 2001 that didn’t have the proper provision. It may sound silly, but without this “magic” wording, your designated health care representative won’t have access to your medical records. Without this access, they may not be able to fulfill their duty in making the most informed decisions regarding your health care as possible. This mistake can be especially important if you’ve designated someone other than a close relative (such as a spouse or adult child) as your agent.

Underfunded Living Trusts

Another mistake I’ve seen is living revocable trusts that are not fully funded. Undoubtedly, without the guidance of a quality estate planner, the funding process can feel overwhelming. When people procrastinate or run into roadblocks when placing assets into their trust they can get frustrated and fail to complete the process. This is a misstep with negative consequences because without funding the trust, it’s best thought of as an empty container waiting for a testator’s assets to fill it up. Without it, if the person with the underfunded trust passes away, the estate will still need to pass through the sluggish and costly probate process. And, quite frankly, the investment in the trust will have been for little benefit or advantage.

Let your estate planner help you through this process. Also, consider if you have any new major assets that need to be assigned to the trust.

All jokes aside, every Iowan deserves a high quality and functional estate plan that meets their goals. Don’t be a fool and let more time go by before reviewing your plan! Please contact me with any questions; I offer a free one-hour consult.

Fancy estate planning pen on notebook

Estate planning documents express your wishes in the event of your disability or death. However, estate planning documents must follow certain formalities to be legally enforceable. If your estate planning documents lack these formalities, they may not be enforceable, which could be disastrous for your loved ones and beneficiaries.

Iowa Requirements

Keep in mind estate planning requirements vary state by state. Let’s look at a Last Will and Testament, just one of six “must have” estate planning documents every Iowan needs. For a will to be valid in Iowa, it must comply with these requirements:

  • Maker (testator) must be at least 18 years of age or married;
  • Maker must be of “sound mind”;
  • Will must be written;
  • Will must be signed by maker in presence of at least two competent witnesses, at least 16 years of age, who also sign in presence of maker and each other; and,
  • Maker must tell the witnesses it is his or her will.

Formalities Matter

It is important to have a reputable legal professional handle your estate planning. If you don’t, you risk missing one or more legal formalities, which might make your entire estate plan worthless. For this reason, avoid creating a will, or for that matter any estate planning documents, through an online service.

Starting an estate plan may seem like a daunting chore, but it doesn’t have to be. The easiest place to start is with my free, no-obligation Estate Plan Questionnaire. Of course, you may always reach out to me at any time with any questions or concerns.

Person writing on paper

A last will and testament certainly sounds like a complex document. But, when boiled down, your will answers just three simple, yet important questions.

  1. Who do you want to inherit your assets?

A will provides for the orderly distribution of your property at death according to your wishes. By property, I mean everything you own. Your property includes both tangible and intangible things. An example of a tangible item would be your stamp collection. An example of intangible items would be stocks and bonds.

mom and daughter holding hands

  1. Who do you want to be in charge of carrying out your wishes as expressed in the Will?

In a will, you also name the “executor” of your estate. The executor is the person who’s responsible for making sure the will is implemented as written. Needless to say, this is a very important position, and you want to name someone you can trust completely, and you know to be responsible and competent.

  1. Who do you want to take care of your kids?

If you have minor children (i.e., kids under age 18), you’ll want to designate a legal guardian(s) who will take care of your children until they are adults. Also, a will can set up a financial trustee (may be the same as the guardian) who can oversee and be responsible for your child’s funds until they are old enough (and mature enough) to inherit property.

 

Without a Will, There’s No Way

Without a last will and testament, you’ve given no guidance to anyone about who should inherit your property, who should be in charge of carrying out your wishes, and who you want to be your kids’ legal guardian. Not having a will creates unneeded stress and heartache, and even total chaos, for your loved ones and friends. This distress would also come at the worst possible time—when they are mourning your passing.

Drafting a quality estate plan that incorporates your wishes and goals is the height of responsibility. And if estate planning sounds intimidating, fear not! We’ll walk through the five steps of estate planning together. The best place to start is with my Estate Plan Questionnaire.

I’d love to hear from you. You can email me anytime at gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com.

Someone pointing into the sunset

Estate planning allows people to elect tools and strategies that makes life for their loved ones as uncomplicated as possible following death. Almost everyone I work with wants to ensure their family members are set up for success.

Dad holding daughter

One such estate planning tool to accomplish this is the handy dandy trust. There are almost limitless different types of trusts; trusts may be classified by their purpose, duration, creation method, or by the nature of the trust property. For instance, there is the fairly common “animal care” or “pet” trust. You can also place almost any asset imaginable in a trust.

For some parents looking to help a son or daughter (minor or adult) with special needs, a trust can be a powerful avenue to continuing to support the loved one. (In this trust situation the child would be the beneficiary of the trust, the parents would be the settlor, and a trustee would be assigned.) Why? In general, the idea is that a special needs trust can use estate assets to enrich and enhance the child’s life while maintaining the individual’s viability for enrollment in public benefits programs. Examples of assistance programs can include Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Medicaid, subsidized housing, and vocational rehabilitation, among others.

Specifics of Special Needs Trust

Smart estate planning for special needs ensures that the parts of the estate which pass on to the individual with special needs are NOT considered an “available asset” by the associated agencies that disperse essential benefits. Many people make the mistake of leaving assets to a loved one with a disability through a will. This is problematic because acquiring assets, such as a significant lump sum of money, can disqualify your loved one from certain government assistance programs. By setting up a special needs trust, instead of solely using a will, you can avoid these issues. How? Because the trustee has total control over the management of the funds, and the beneficiary does not, government program administrators, like the ones from SSI and Medicaid, don’t “count” the trust assets when considering eligibility.

Beyond protecting the beneficiary’s eligibility for public benefits a special needs trust can also:

  • offer assured lifelong money management for the child; and/or
  • establish a pool of available funds in the future event that public benefits should be restricted or revoked.

Careful Drafting Required

It’s important to remember that details of each special needs trust will vary depending on factors like the beneficiary’s age, competency, and familial situation. Also, because of the complexities involved, special needs trusts require extremely careful drafting. So, If you’re even considering establishing a special needs trust as a part of your estate plan, it’s definitely necessary to speak with an experienced estate planning professional to make sure all of the nuances of the trust are executed properly.

Don’t hesitate to contact me with questions via email (gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com) or on my cell phone at 515-371-6077.

woman in front of painting

If you’re growing an art collection it brings up an interesting situation: how do you incorporate your prized pieces into your estate plan? Sure, you likely don’t have an authentic da Vinci, Renoir, or Klimt just hanging in your living room, but maybe you have a couple of pieces you inherited or a burgeoning modern art collection.

Value of a Passion

For most collectors the art isn’t about monetary value, but more so about a passion for a certain period, artist, or medium. Collecting is often an act of genuine appreciation for the fine arts. Considering both the intrinsic and market value of your art collection it’s ESSENTIAL you include it as a part of your estate plan. The collection is, after all, a part of your total estate’s value and they way it’s handled in your estate plan could impact the value of your gross estate in regards to the federal estate tax. When it comes to the estate planning goal of avoiding such taxes and fees the appraised value of your art is paramount to consider. Naturally, you want your collection to be well-treated following your passing, as well as retain its value.

Let’s go through some important steps and elements to consider.

Assemble Documentation

The value of the collection will be important to the estate plan. If you haven’t done so already, you must correctly catalog, photograph, insure, and appraise the collection. You should also gather all documentation such as appraisals and bills of sale that will need to accompany the artwork as it changes hands upon your estate plan’s execution.

Weigh Your Options

With an art collection, there are three main options for disposition within your estate plan (or to be executed during your life).

Donate

Donating your art to a charitable organization or a museum is an excellent way to practice smart charitable giving. It can also be one of the more simple options. Donate through your estate plan following your death and the estate will receive a tax deduction based on the current valuation. Give while you’re living and you can take an income tax deduction, also based on the value of the piece or collection at the time of the donation.

With this option, you and the recipient organization should agree to signed terms and conditions BEFORE the artwork delivery. Details can include specifics as to where and how the art is to be displayed if you want your name on the signage next to the painting and similar details.

Bequest Artwork to your Loved Ones

Another common option is to keep the art within the family by passing along the art along to your estate’s heirs. Yes, you could gift each individual piece to each family member, but if you want to keep the collection intact you could transfer the collection to a trust you create while living that can be updated and changed during your lifetime. A trust is a solid estate planning tool that allows your named trust beneficiaries to avoid estate tax and probate complications and fees. In the formation of your trust, you can also define the terms for the care and condition of the artwork.

You could instead bequest the collection to an entity like an LLC you create. In this case, your heirs would own interest in the LLC instead of each owning a piece of art. In your estate plan and in the development of the entity you can appoint a manager (or multiple managers) who make sales or purchasing decisions for the collection.

Sell

It goes without saying that art is expensive—to buy and to sell. There are benefits (and detriments) to this option during life and after death, but waiting to sell until after death means the art’s value will be included in the estate. As such the capital gains tax could be lessened or entirely eliminated because the tax basis for the art collection is increased to fair market value at the time of death, instead of what you paid for the art/collection. If you instead would like to sell while alive you can likely expect to pay a capital gains tax on top of a sales commission fee and sales tax (among other potential fees).

Give, gift, sell—whatever option you choose, select a plan that allows you to feel at peace with where and to whom your collection is headed.

Enlist an Expert

Regardless of what option you want to pursue in the disposition of your art work, you need to work with an experienced estate planner who can help navigate the complexity of your estate. It’s your estate planning lawyer who can help you establish a framework for passing along your artwork to your chosen beneficiaries.

Discuss With Your Family

Depending on your family dynamic, discussing your estate plan with your loved ones can be difficult. It can bring up emotion and hard topics like mortality, however, to avoid litigation, mitigate in-fighting, and help determine what’s the best course of action forward for your property it’s necessary. When it comes to your art collection, your heirs may not feel the same way about the artwork that you do and knowing these opinions is critical in the decision of what to do with the collection.

When having the conversation, cultivate an environment in which your family can discuss openly and freely without judgment. You want their honest opinions as a part of your decision in what to do with your collection in the event of your passing.

art graffiti


Just as the art itself can be exceedingly complex, so can incorporating said art into an estate plan. You probably have questions; don’t hesitate to reach out at any time via email or phone (515-371-6077). I offer a free one-hour consultation and would love to help you protect your artistic assets through quality, individualized estate planning.

Dog in dog house

When you own a pet, every day is a celebration of your furry/feathery/fuzzy friend…except maybe when they leave a stain on the new carpet. But, today is National Love Your Pet Day, which means it’s a special reason to celebrate! So after you’re done posing with your pup on Instagram, contact an estate planner about including Spot in your estate plan! Don’t worry, you don’t need to name your bunny or bird as a beneficiary in your will to include them as a part of your family. There’s a special kind of trust just for animals—known as a pet or animal care trust.

dogs on a dog walker's leash

Top Dog Benefit: Peace of Mind

It’s easy to establish but can make a world of difference for your animal companion if something were to happen to you. Of course, we would all hope that our families or friends would adopt our pets without hesitation and given them all the love in the world. But, for many reasons, that doesn’t always happen. An animal care trust gives you peace of mind that your pet will be provided for if you were to pass away or become incapacitated in a way that prohibits you from fully being able to care sufficiently for the pet.

Animal Care Elements: Consider These Questions

There are just a few key questions you should consider with an animal care trust.

  1. If something happens to you, who do you want to have guardianship of your pet? This caregiver should be a trusted someone that can give ample care and love to your pup. It’s a good idea to name a successor caregiver just in case.
  2. Who do you want to be the trustee of the trust? The trustee is the person who distributes trust funds and ensures that the pet’s caregiver follows the owner’s instructions as set out in the trust. For instance, you could designate your mother as the trustee and your brother as the caregiver. You can name a successor trustee if the first individual is unable or unwilling.
  3. Who would you like named as the remainder beneficiary of the trust’s funds? If your pet passes before the trust is exhausted, where would you like the money to go? This is a great opportunity to name an animal care charity which would put the money toward helping more animals!
  4. What are your pet’s standard of care and daily life? What do they like to do? You’ll want to detail things like health care needs (like medicine), food preferences, and activities they love (like playing catch or running alongside a bike). If you want your pet to visit the veterinarian for check-ups every six months, this can also be written in.
  5.  What features (breed/age/color/name) identify your pet? Identifying the dog in detail can prevent a guardian from replacing the original pet as a way of illegally extend trust distributions! (Not that they would…but just in case.)
  6. Do you have a preference for the disposition of your dog? This is optional, but you could choose to specify burial under a favorite tree in the backyard, or cremation.
  7. How much money do you want to set aside in the trust? This money is what will be used to provide care for your pet. You’ll also want to specify how the money will be distributed to the caregiver of your animal. Generally, this figure can’t exceed what may reasonably be required given your pet’s standard of living.
  8. Do you want to compensate the caregiver? If you wish, you can compensate the caregiver in their role. Generally, a small monthly or annual stipend is acceptable.

Note that a good estate planner will include “all present and future pets” in the pet trust with some specific verbiage. This is a bit of estate planning insurance, just in case you don’t have the chance to update your pet trust if you add a new animal to your family in the future.

Why Not Just a Will?

One questions I’ve received from pet parents in the past is: why can’t I just include my cat in my will? They have a point and they’re on the right track. Pets are considered personal property, so you can include them in your will with language such as, “My daughter will inherit my house and my hedgehog, Sonic.”

However, a will is a document that facilitates transfers of assets—it doesn’t enforce demands tied to the property. Instructions in a will are unenforceable, there is nothing to stop the pet caregiver to ignoring instructions in a will completely. But, in an animal care trust, you can hone in on specific habits and behaviors such as: Rover eats X certain kind of dog food and should be taken to a dog park at least once a week. If the caregiver didn’t feed Spot a certain kind of dog food or take him to the dog park, the trustee could get the caregiver’s status revoked and the pet would transfer to the successor guardian.

Close up of dog licking camera

Unlike a specific trust, a will doesn’t address the possibility that your pet may need to be cared for by a guardian if you become incapacitated. Additionally, wills go through the probate process and the property transfer is not immediate. Where will the pet reside during this process? If litigation over the estate occurs who is caring for the pet.

Unlike a testamentary trust for children in a will, the document doesn’t allow don’t allow for disbursement of funds over a pet’s lifetime. If you bequest funds to your intended animal guardian it would be distributed all at once and there’s nothing to stop that individual from using the money on themselves and selling your pet.

In terms of opportunity for fund disbursement, specific instructions, and a clear cut contingency plan if your initial named guardian or trustee doesn’t work out, the animal care trust is a superior estate planning tool for your pet.

That all being said, you DEFINITELY need a will as a part of your estate plan. It just that a separate animal care trust will best compliment the other estate planning documents for this particular and important part of your life.

Tail Wagging Trust

Share this infographic with fellow pet lovers, and let’s discuss how to structure your personalized animal care trust. Contact me via email or phone (515-371-6077) to get started!