Providing for a pet's care after the owner's death

PERSONAL FINANCE

March 05, 2006|By EILEEN AMBROSE

People often love their pets as much as they do any family member. Sometimes even more.

So, it's not unheard of for pet owners to want to make sure that when they die, their pets are provided for.

For a long time, the law hasn't made this easy. Animals are considered property and can't inherit assets. And even if, say, a pet owner left money in a will to a relative to care for a dog, there's no guarantee the caretaker will spend the cash on Fido.

But times are changing. Thirty-one states and the District of Columbia now recognize pet trusts, which allow an owner to name an animal as a beneficiary. A trustee is named to carry out the pet owner's wishes. And a court can replace a trustee who's not doing a good job.

Maryland is considering similar legislation. Some may snort at the prospect of trusts for pets, but animal advocates say it's about time.

"Many animals have long life spans, far longer than your average person may realize," said Kathleen Masterton, a Lutherville lawyer.

Most horses in Maryland, for instance, are for pleasure riding - not racing - and can live 30 years or so, Masterton said.

Basic care costs at least $600 to $700 a month. If an owner dies without providing for the horse's upkeep, the animal could end up at the slaughterhouse, she said.

A similar fate awaits smaller pets, too, animal advocates say. Dogs and cats may be shipped to a shelter after an owner's death and end up being euthanized.

Under Maryland's proposed legislation, a pet owner can name more than one animal as the beneficiary of a trust. A trustee would be named to carry out the trust's terms, although someone could ask the court to remove a negligent trustee.

The trust would continue until the last pet dies.

After that, any money left would be disbursed according to the pet owner's wishes. The money could go, say, to a relative or a charity.

Without an enforceable pet trust, supporters say, some of the alternatives don't give pet owners the guarantees they want.

Often, people end up leaving money outright in a will to a relative or friend to care for a pet, said Michael Hodes, an estate planning lawyer in Towson.

Hodes went a step further for his two French bulldogs, Jack and Abbigale. He set up a testamentary trust that will be created upon his death and funded with $50,000. His son is the trust's beneficiary and the designated caregiver of the dogs. Hodes also drafted a directive letter to his son stating the money is intended for the bulldogs' needs.

Hodes said he was trying to get as legally close as he could to a pet trust, which isn't available in Maryland. He said he's confident that his son will come through for the dogs.

"He's a real dog lover," Hodes said. "Where those things get dicey is when you get beyond a family member who is not a pet lover."

Additionally, Hodes' power of attorney designates a person to make decisions regarding the dogs in case the lawyer becomes incapacitated.

Some veterinary schools offer another option for charitable-minded pet owners. The schools promise a certain amount of care for a surviving pet, in return for a contribution or bequest to an endowment that supports their research and other activities.

For example, Texas A&M University's program will bring a pet - even a llama - to live on campus. Minimum contributions are based on the animal's size and pet owner's age. Someone 70 or older would need to bequeath at least $50,000 for a small pet.

Purdue University's program will find a new home for a pet and pay for its medical care. Contributions start at $25,000.

The important thing, experts agree, is that people make plans for what will happen to their pet. And whether they end up creating a pet trust, setting money aside in a will for care or use some other means, the issues owners face will be similar.

For instance, pet owners need to find a caretaker and someone to manage the money left behind for the pet's benefit. Usually, the same person handles both roles.

Look for someone who is responsible, capable of handling money and likes animals. "You want somebody who really cares about your pet," Hodes said.

He once handled an estate that required him to find someone to care for the departed's poodle, Petie. No one in the deceased's family wanted the dog.

"Petie had a urinary problem," Hodes said. "We called him Petie the Peeing Poodle."

With the help of an animal advocacy group, Hodes found a caregiver who loved the poodle, puddles and all. But a feud erupted when the family discovered Petie came with $20,000. The dispute nearly landed in court, until the family backed off, Hodes said.

Other suggestions include:

Name one or two backups in case the caregiver or trustee can't fulfill the job.

Avoid potential conflicts of interest. This is when trustees or caregivers can put their economic self-interest ahead of the pet. It can happen when, say, the caregiver stands to inherit money when the pet dies, said Gregory Dennis, a lawyer in Kansas, which permits pet trusts.

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