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Assure your pet survives you in good hands

Two of the fastest growing legal specialties are elder law and animal law. Both focus on providing for and assuring protection for the most vulnerable family members. As millions of aging Baby Boomers face the need to plan for those who depend upon them after they pass on, new concerns have arisen for government agencies, animal welfare organizations and the courts.

Just one example is a widely publicized Marin County case where a man with several horses died without a will. Marin County authorities were faced with providing for the horses, some of which had special needs. And, even if a will had included provisions for these expensive companion animals, problems across the country have arisen in making sure that pets are in fact cared for after an estate has settled. Considered as property in legal eyes, pets can be bequeathed to someone, but there is no legal requirement that any “property” – such as a house or a car or an animal – be maintained once handed over to the beneficiary. There is comforting news however.

Forty-six states now have legal provisions for pet trusts. Correctly set up, pet trusts are stronger and more specific regarding ongoing care requirements. They can resolve the common problem of having a person named as caretaker for a pet who later becomes no longer able to do so for financial or personal reasons. Pet trusts also can be crafted to avoid the situation of money given to a person or entity who pretends that a pet is still alive and collects caregiving payments from an estate long after that pet is gone. There are cases on record of pets made to suffer on long-term life support or pet look-alikes being presented for inspection so greedy caretakers can continue to collect money designated for pet care.

With over half of America’s households having one or more companion animals, pet owners are urged to make provisions for their beloved animals sooner than later. Many resources are available for both laymen and specialist accountants and attorneys. One of the most referenced is a recent book written to explain in plain language all the considerations when naming pets in wills, setting up a pet trust and related details. The book is “Fat Cats and Lucky Dogs” by Texas Tech University School of Law Professor Gerry Beyer and Canadian estate planner Barry Seltzer. A straightforward outline of tips is provided by Montana State University in the article “Estate Planning Tools for Owners of Companion or Service Animals and Pets,” available on the web. An Internet search for “pet trust” or “pet estate planning” brings up many good resources.

Every day pets are surrendered to animal shelters because their owner died. Often these pets are older, have medical problems which may or may not be known to the person or case worker who turns the pets in, and these depressed pets have no idea why their life has abruptly changed from someone’s faithful companion to orphan. Sadly, some pets are named in a will with the order that the animal is to be destroyed upon death of the owner. With widespread new awareness and compassion toward domestic pets, the courts are inclined to invalidate this kind of a request, especially if the pet is healthy. However, the pet must be cared for and that care must be paid for by someone.

Planning ahead for the day we are no longer alive is something we are told to do. We are mortal after all. Staying in denial, avoiding what some feel is a distasteful task, means that our dependents, especially our animals, may suffer betrayal at our hands. We truly love our pets by accepting the responsibility of providing for them should we become incapacitated or pass on before them. Good professional advice is available. A variety of forms are free on the Internet for the most simple directives regarding pets. The basics are a last will and testament to name one or more caretakers and provide caretaking details, power of attorney for pet care while you are alive but incapacitated and a pet protection trust to provide the funds and stipulations for pet care.

– Provided by the Lake Tahoe Humane Society and S.P.C.A. to help “Keep Tahoe Kind”. Dawn Armstrong is the executive director.

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