Owning a pet — any pet — is a substantial investment of time and money.
Whether your pet is a rescue, adopted for nothing, or a purebred with a street value of many thousands, you can’t put a price tag on what it’s worth to you. So, you ought to take steps to provide for this family member after you are gone — just as you would for any other. There are a couple of ways to do this, which can be used alone or in combination with each other.
Set up a trust
If you remember, Leona Helmsley set up a $12 million trust to benefit her dog, Trouble. After Helmsley died in 2007, two of her grandchildren, whom she had disinherited, challenged the trust. They convinced the court to reduce the trust to $2 million and ended up with $3 million apiece. The other $4 million went to a charitable trust that Helmsley and her husband Harry had set up. Trouble has since died.
Such trusts (usually funded with much smaller amounts) have become increasingly popular, and can be done here in New York. Creating and administering pet trusts involves many of the same issues that arise with other types of trusts, including how to fund the trust, whether it should take effect while you are still alive (for example, if you are no longer able to care for your pet) and whom to choose as trustee. You will also want to identify the caregiver (include alternates in case the person you have in mind cannot or doesn’t want to do it). Ideally, it should be someone other than the trustee. You can even include care instructions, and indicate what should happen to the funds after your pet dies.
Choose a pet guardian
A simpler approach is to designate in your Will the person to care for your pet, and leave that individual enough money to carry out the responsibility. This raises two potential pitfalls: One, the amount could be subject to estate tax and Two, there is no legal mechanism for making sure things go as you planned. Nor is there any guarantee that the person will want your pet or be able to care for it when time comes.
In response to this problem, a growing number of for-profit and not-for-profit pet guardian programs have sprung up around the country. Some are shelters or re-homing organizations that are specific to certain types of animals — such as birds, farm animals or dogs. Usually the better ones are those run by university veterinary schools or connected with local humane societies.
Pet guardian programs are terrific for people who don’t have a specific person in mind or need to name an alternate on their pet trust if the caregivers they have listed are unable or unwilling to serve. Or, you can combine the two concepts, and put the animal care organization in charge of your pet’s care, while naming the trustee to oversee it and control the money.
Guardian programs are also great if you have a pet like a bird or a tortoise that has long life expectancy — longer than any human beings whom you trust. These programs might also be well suited to finding a home for exotic pets like pigs and llamas.
In choosing a facility, there are a number of issues to consider. Among those are the cost of the facility, what’s its reputation, what’s its track record for placement, and what happens to those animals that can’t be placed.
One final piece of advice: In addition to expressing your wishes in estate planning documents, communicate them to friends, family and financial advisors. Otherwise, by the time they locate the relevant documents, it may already be too late to save Fluffy or Rover.