Planning for your pets

Have You Considered Estate Planning for Your Pets?

If you’ve been responsible, you’ve already signed your own will and powers of attorney. Perhaps you’ve even signed a trust. Have you done any estate planning for your pets?

Taking care of your closest friends

We don’t mean to suggest you ought to write a will for your cat, or an advance directive for your dog. (Let’s talk about a trust for your tortoise, though.) We mean that you need to consider who will take care of your beloved pets. Who will pay for their care? And who will decide?

Perhaps you will go through a transition period. By that, we mean to suggest tha tyou might be unable to take care of yourself for some period of time. Do you have a care plan in place for your pets? Who will visit your home, take care of feeding, arrange new housing if you’re not going to be able to return?

What are your choices?

You could create a “pet trust” for your dog, cat — or any “domestic or pet animal”. That’s the language used by the Arizona statute allowing what are sometimes called “honorary” trusts. A pet trust must be for the benefit of particular animals, not a class of all needy animals. In other words, you could leave a trust for “all the dogs I own at my death”, but not “all the homeless cats in Tucson, Arizona.”

How much money do you have to leave in a pet trust? There is no lower limit. The upper limit? Well, a judge is permitted to decide that you’ve been too generous with your pet trust — remember “Trouble“? A New York judge reduced Leona Helmsley’s $12 million pet trust for her beloved Maltese. The judge decided $2 million should do just fine.

Pet trusts have long been a plot idea in books and movies. We wrote about “Rhubarb” five years ago — maybe you remember the movie. The reality, though, is that they are not very common in the real world. Most people come up with some other mechanism for taking care of their pets.

What planning for your pets is more realistic?

Most of our clients have pets. Most of those pets are dogs and cats, of course. The planning we most often see includes these elements:

  1. Naming someone to take, and take care of, the pets. Sometimes clients name an individual who will be responsible to find a new home — and not necessarily to take on the pet(s). That makes sense, particularly as the named person’s life situation changes. Your niece might be the perfect person to take on your cat right now, but when she has three children and household allergies, she’ll thank you for not mandating that she take the cat into her home. On the other hand, she might look around and figure out that she’s the perfect person to take Felix in.
  2. Leaving a fixed dollar amount to accompany the pet. You can try to figure out how much your aging dog might cost in food, toys and vet bills. You will be wrong. Figure out a number that is fair, and generous. Make the person who takes in Freckles even happier to do so, but don’t turn it into a financial prize. What’s the most-common number we see? $10,000. Followed closely by $2,000.
  3. Including pets in your power of attorney. Identify who will take over the daily feeding, make the decision to place them when it looks like you’re not coming home, arrange for them to visit you in the rehab facility (hint: late-night subterfuge might be involved). Make sure your power of attorney includes permission for your agent to pay those pet-related costs.

Dealing with especially long-lived pets

Do you have a cockatoo? Many can live to be 60 or older. A tortoise? Perhaps 100 years’ longevity. Neither would do well if turned loose (not that you would ever permit, or even countenance, such a thing).

You might want to include a provision referring to an appropriate specialty group. Perhaps Donatello’s veterinarian can help; she works with a lot of other tortoises, too.

In addition to leaving some money to help care of Pichatu (is that a great cockatoo name, or what?), you want to make sure to choose a compatible companion. You also should update your pet custodian names more often, we think, than you reassess even guardians for your children. Why? Because your pet situation and your friend situation both tend to change faster than your family situation.

We hope this helps you think about planning for your pets in a constructive way. We have one more suggestion: we really like a simple checklist offered by the Humane Society of the United States. Check it out. And give a treat to Cookie from us, please.

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