Four-legged heirs

Money Report

Estate planning for the pets we love

Estate planning for the pets we loveWe love our pets, and we aren’t afraid to lavish money and care on them. According to the American Pet Product Association, Americans are projected to spend an estimated $45.4 billion in 2009-2010 on their pets, up from $34.4 billion dollars in 2004. The trouble is, our pets sometimes outlive us.

Publicity surrounds the embattled estates and the unusually large trusts created for the furry companions of Leona Helmsley and Miami heiress Gail Posner. For some, it is difficult to imagine and somewhat frivolous to leave a $12 million trust for a dog named Trouble or even a $3 million trust and an $8.3 million mansion for Conchita the Chihuahua. That said, many faithful companions, often elderly animals difficult to adopt, end up being taken to the pound or abandoned by heirs. It is possible and important to make arrangements for care of your pet should something happen to you.

The concept of estate planning for pets is not just for the ultra-wealthy or ultra-eccentric; it is well-established and should be an important part of your overall estate plan. One option is to leave money to a friend to care for your dog or cat. According to South Carolina attorney Suellen Mazurowski, a verbal agreement to care for an animal upon the death or incapacity of its owner is, at best, an “honorary” trust, and it may be difficult to prove the existence and terms of such a trust.

The law, of course, does not allow animals to inherit assets; however, it does allow a special “pet trust” to be set up to provide for ongoing care. According to Mazurowski, in most cases these trusts, which specify caretakers and alternate caretakers for your animal and specialized provisions for the care of your animal, can be a better alternative than relying upon a friend or family member. The friend or family member may be overwhelmed with his or her or own issues at the time of your death or incapacity and be unable to physically or financially provide for your pet. If you have a properly funded pet trust, you need not pass away in order for the trust to become effective. It can be utilized to provide for your pet if you become incapacitated and unable to care for it.

It is important that the trust designate the circumstances in which the funds are to be used and that the trustee is obligated by law to use these funds for your pet(s).

Estate planning for the pets we loveEqually significant is the detail attached to your wishes and desires in the trust to be upheld by the caretaker. Pet owners can leave pet welfare up to the discretion of the trustee; alternatively, some pet owners include provisions in the trust specifying preferred food and treats, treatments and medications, frequency of veterinary appointments, and burial or cremation arrangements. Many trusts also indicate to what lengths the caretaker should go in regard to medical treatments to save the life of your pet. The trust should also specify a beneficiary for the distribution of remaining funds once your pet passes.

Kibble for Thought

If you are considering a trust for your pet, here are some important points to consider:

  • Consult with an attorney who is licensed in the state of residence of the animal owner—the new South Carolina Trust Code in section 62-7-408. This code section provides that the animal need not be alive at the time of the creation of the trust. However, the animal must be alive (or in gestation) during the life of the settler of the trust.
  • Beware of online sites that allow you to set up a pet trust yourself. They are inexpensive but come with some risks. One of the mostprominent sellers of do-it-yourself legal products in the United States is now being sued by a potential heir. Similar suits alleging unauthorized practice of law and fraudulent practices have been brought frequently by state bar associations against do-it-yourself entities.
  • Select an attorney who likes animals and is sensitive to your desire to protect your animal.
  • Ask your attorney to establish the amount of money to place in the trust since placing excess funds in the trust may lead to post mortem litigation. In SC, funds that are not needed for the care of the animal can be distributed to the trust maker’s successors in interest. Our pets provide us with a lifetime of joy; with a little planning, we can assure them protection and security as they age.

Steven Weber is the senior investment advisor for The Bedminster Group. The Bedminster Group is a registered investment advisor providing fee-only investment, estate and financial planning services. The information contained herein was obtained from sources considered reliable. Their accuracy cannot be guaranteed.