Providing for the Pets We Love After We're No Longer Here

    On a recent Saturday night I had to rush my rescued orange and white tabby, Tyger, to the Savannah Emergency Veterinary clinic, the only 24-hour weekend emergency for animals in the Low Country.  I am forever indebted to Dr. Debbie Barret and Darcie Little for their immediate care and attention (Tyger is recovering successfully.) This late night episode made me think about the pets we love and what would happen to them if we weren't around;  just last year, Leona Helmsley made the headlines one final time, leaving a $12 million trust fund for her dog Trouble, and  naming her brother as the caretaker. Does a dog really need that much money? Well, Americans spent $34.4 billion dollars on their pets in 2004, according to a recent report from the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association. Spending on pets has doubled in the last 10 years. People are beginning to realize how important it is to plan for their pets, so someone will care for them when they are no longer able to.

Understanding a pet trust
    The purpose of a trust is first, to provide for your pet and second, to eliminate a conflict of interest between the caregiver and trustee. You could just leave money to a friend to care for Fluffy - but the friend may prove neglectful, or not capable; not all courts will reinforce the caretaker's responsibility to your pet. Fluffy could be left homeless.  Creating a trust requires setting aside money to be used for your pet's care, appointing a person to manage the funds (trustee) and selecting a caretaker.  When establishing a trust, you also determine when it becomes effective, so your pet is provided for immediately, not only if you die, but if you become incapacitated and unable to care for them. If you have considered leaving a trust to care for your pet, consult with an attorney who recognizes your desire to provide for your pet or pets once you are no longer able. An attorney will help you to understand the premise of a pet trust, confirm that a pet trust is valid and enforceable in your state, and will guide you through the administration and maintenance of the trust.

Choosing a Caretaker for your Pet
    Consider your options carefully when choosing a caregiver for your pet.  Stick with people who love pets, people who have met your pet and have successfully cared for their own pets. Trustworthiness, compassion and maturity should be inherent characteristics, (but look for someone younger than you). Identify caregivers and provide useful and realistic instructions for them in your will. Discuss your care giving expectations with potential caregivers so they understand the large responsibility of caring for your pet. If your chosen caregiver is unable to assume the responsibility, the executor of your will can place your pet with another responsible caregiver of their selection unless you have supplied a contingent caregiver. Remember, the new pet owner will have full discretion over your animal's care-from veterinary treatment to euthanasia-make sure you choose a person you trust implicitly and who will do what is in the best interest of your pet.  Leave copies of the trust with the person you've chosen to be executor of your estate as well as with the pet's designated caregiver (and alternate) so that he or she can look after your pet immediately. Make sure the caregiver also has copies of your pet's veterinary records and information about her behavior traits and dietary preferences.If you have more than one pet, you must decide if your animals should go to different people; however, if a bond exists between your pets, try to keep them together.  You should also authorize your executor to expend funds from your estate for the temporary care of your pet as well as for the costs of looking for a new home and transporting the animal to it if there is cause. Your will should also grant broad discretion to your executor in making decisions about the animal and in expending estate funds on the animal's behalf.

How much is enough?
    Consider the current expenses for the care of your pet (medical, grooming, food, boarding) along with the health and age of your pet.  Perhaps you spend $600 a month in pet expenses - consequently you will want to provide a reasonable amount of money for the trustee and the caregiver.  Depending upon the extent of your finances, you may consider an investment plan for your money so that it will last the duration of your pet's lifetime.
* In 2006, the state of South Carolina adopted pet trust statutes in uniform trust code 408.
Gigi Harris is Director, Client Services, Marketing for The Bedminster Group. The Bedminster Group provides fee-only investment, estate and financial planning services.  The information contained herein was obtained from sources considered reliable. Their accuracy cannot be guaranteed. The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those from any other source.

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