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When I initially heard about estate planning for pets, I snickered! But in a time when Americans are increasingly demonstrating that they want highly customized products, the concept isn’t surprising. People are willing to pay top dollar to enjoy a particular lifestyle, and this includes estate planning. Every family is different; people have their own unique wants and needs that require a comprehensive plan tailored to their particular family. This is where estate planning for pets comes in � and this type of customized planning is on the rise. Here in Southern California, I see less and less of the “traditional” family coming in for estate planning. At my firm we regularly work with blended families, single-parent families, cohabiting couples, gay and lesbian families, and every combination thereof. Many of my clients have no children � or perhaps I should say they have no human children. But they feel very connected to their pets, who provide them with loyalty, unconditional love and companionship. In addition, these families often have amassed a sizable amount of assets. Hey, they never had to pay for college! The clients who engage us to do estate planning for their pets belong to a very small but grateful group. They are grateful not just that this type of planning is an option, but that we care and allow them to talk about the realities of their family without feeling ashamed. Janet and George are a couple I recently worked with who are doing estate planning for their pets. George is a computer programmer for a local university; Janet just retired after being a controller for 20 years. George and Janet have a net worth of more than $1.5 million and no children, and they want to plan for their three cats, Muffin, Mittens and Shasta. During our meeting, Janet teared up just thinking about the pets being left without care. After all, their cats depend on them for food, exercise, veterinary needs and medications. The reality is that if something happened to George, Janet would still be able to care for the cats. But if something were to then happen to Janet, how can she ensure that her pets will continue to receive proper care? Many assisted living centers and nursing homes do not allow residents to bring pets to the facility. Of the few that do, Janet would likely have to choose which one of her three cats she would be allowed to keep. Worst of all, Janet is rightly disturbed by the thought that her pets could be euthanized if she dies or becomes incapacitated. Sadly, without proper planning, this could happen. According to one estimate, 500,000 pets are euthanized in shelters each year for this reason. PLANNING FOR YOUR PETS So we began by chatting about their options. First, George and Janet would need to consider the advantages and disadvantages of using informal arrangements versus formal arrangements for the care of their pets. Many people simply make a “bequest” of an outright monetary gift to the person who will take over the care of their pets. The problem is that there is no way to monitor the person or the use of the money. The named caregiver is on the honor system so there could be undesirable outcomes.
A trust is the best choice for planning for pets because it pro-vides a way to ensure that your pet is taken care of under all cir-cumstances and according to your stated wishes as seamlessly as possible.

If the pet owner uses a will to make the bequest, then there would not necessarily be any provision for the pet in the event of an incapacity. Further, since a will only takes effect at death, there is often a gap in time of weeks or months after a death before the will goes through a court process called probate, which, in California, is very time consuming. There would be no certainty that the pets would be cared for during this time. PET TRUSTS Probate Code � 15212 allows the creation of pet trusts in California. A trust is the best choice for planning for pets because it provides a way to ensure that your pet is taken care of under all circumstances and according to your stated wishes as seamlessly as possible. George and Janet designed their living trust so that upon the last of the two of them to die, whatever money they had left would fund the trust for the benefit of the pets they had at that time. The trustee disburses funds to the named caregiver pursuant to specific instructions. The caregiver is entitled to reasonable compensation to care for the cats. Upon the termination of the pet trust � which is usually when the last of the family pets has died � the trustee transfers the remaining principal to George and Janet’s beneficiaries named in the trust agreement, one-half to his heirs and one-half to hers. Further, when doing pet trust planning, be sure that the pet owner’s General Durable Power of Attorney � a document separate from the pet trust � has special provisions giving an agent authority to care for the pets and to spend the money needed to do so if the pet owner becomes incapacitated. This makes things a lot easier if an agent-caretaker has to pay for the pet’s veterinary care, for example. In designing your pet trust, you will want to appoint a trustee and a successor to manage and administer the trust. You will also want to provide the trustee with clear, comprehensive guidelines and instructions, including what type of care you wish to provide, restrictions, your pet’s likes and dislikes, personality and routines. Some clients also appoint a pet caregiver who will be responsible for the ongoing care of the animals. Another possibility is a trust advisory panel, which is responsible for making decisions regarding issues such as caregiver compensation, adoption and euthanasia. It is essential that the pet is adequately identified so as to prevent fraud and for third-party identification after the owner’s death. Now there are microchips that a veterinarian can embed so that the animal is forever identifiable. Then there is the famous legend of the cat that never died. A pet owner left his beloved black cat to the maid, to be taken care of for its lifetime with monetary distributions to the maid. Because of the outright distribution, there was no oversight by a trustee; the maid was on the third black cat before the remainder beneficiaries got wise and learned that the original cat had long since died! A pet trust is the best way to plan for the future. George and Janet can rest assured that their pets will be well-cared for when they are no longer able to care for them themselves. Although few clients have the resources and desire for such planning, the ones who do love that they are able to include their beloved pets in their estate plan. We don’t recommend establishing separate pet trusts unless the pet owner is willing to set aside a substantial sum of money for each pet; several factors go into the determination of what amount is appropriate, including the pet’s life expectancy and other anticipated costs. Finally, pet trusts are considered advanced estate planning because they are complex; it takes an experienced practitioner to coordinate the pet provisions with the entire plan. These are highly customized trusts as people who do this type of planning have many specific directives concerning their pets. For example, one couple directed that their Chihuahuas never be placed in a kennel. Specifications regarding the type of food their pets are to eat, their exercise routines, veterinary care guidelines and the desired standard of living for the pet are common. Darlynn C. Morgan is an attorney who provides wealth and estate planning counsel in the San Fernando Valley and Newport Beach. � Practice Center articles inform readers on developments in substantive law, practice issues or law firm management. Contact Sheela Kamath with submissions or questions at [email protected].

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