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What happens to pets when owners can no longer care for them?

2020-9-10 GettyImages-1225305307 pet estate planning blog.jpg

With death comes a whirlwind of grief and details to tend to. And the future of the deceased’s beloved pets is one such issue. Will a family member “adopt” the pet? Is that person’s household the best fit? How can one ensure that their pets are cared for should they become incapacitated or die?

Including pets in estate planning is not typical advice from an estate-planning attorney, but that’s what attorney Kelli Brown, JD, LLM, advises her clients to do because she’s run into that scenario before: If something happens to you, where will your pets go and who will take care of them?

That’s why Brown, an attorney in Louisville, Kentucky, who’s practiced estate planning law for 24 years, wrote Estate Planning When You Have Pets, a step-by-step guide to making decisions on how to tailor your estate planning to include your pet.

It’s a particular concern for aging pet owners, Brown told NEWStat. She says many pets are relinquished because their owners went into an extended-care facility without having named a designated pet custodian.

Brown practices what she preaches: “When I got my own dog in 2016, I realized I needed to include her in my estate planning, which is precisely what I did.” Brown has a husband, two teenage children, and a mini-goldendoodle named Holly. Should anything happen to the family, Holly has a designated custodian: Brown’s next-door neighbor, whose dog is Holly’s best friend.

At the very least, Brown says, people should have a designated pet custodian: “If my husband and children happen to pass away, there’s someone to step in,” said Brown, who also has money in a trust to pay for Holly’s healthcare. “Veterinary care is expensive,” she says. “It’s important to me that my pet has all of the care she requires for a good, healthy life, even if we can’t take care of her because we’re deceased or incapacitated.”

Brown asks all prospective clients to fill out a questionnaire that includes the question “Do you want to make any provision for your pet?” “Once I started putting that question in there, it was shocking to me how many people said yes.”

If they check the box yes, Brown asks them whom they want the pet to go to if they become incapacitated and whether they want to add money to a trust for healthcare.

Trusts are set up so that prospective trustees can’t game the system: “The law [in most states] says a pet trust can only last the life of a pet who’s already living,” Brown says. “So clients can’t leave money to their pet and her babies in perpetuity. They can only leave the money to that pet and only for the life of the pet. Of course, most people are thinking in terms of cats and dogs, which generally limits the number of years they’ll need to fund the trust. But if they have a parrot, you could be budgeting for a hundred years of healthcare.”

Disgruntled family members might try to contest a will that sets aside a large sum for the care of a pet, Brown says. When hotel magnate and infamous “Queen of Mean” Leona Helmsley died in 2007, her family discovered she’d disinherited many of them to leave 12 million dollars to her Maltese, Trouble. The family successfully contested the will, but the process was long and messy.

Brown says a good way to sidestep that sort of mess is to set up the trust so that if the pet dies, the money goes to charity. “Leaving the money to charity in lieu of the pet would pretty much put an end to it. The family has no stake in it.”

Brown estimates that she’s done about 25 pet trusts over the years, including Holly’s, and named hundreds of designated pet custodians.

Veterinarians shouldn’t shy away from raising the topic with clients, says Brown, because it’s basically about establishing continuity of care. “I realize it’s a difficult subject, but most pet owners who take really good care of their pets treat them like family and would want them to be taken care of.”

It’s just not something that occurs to most people until someone points it out, Brown says.

Once a veterinarian does broach the subject, most people realize it really is something they need to think about: Who will take my pet if I get sick? Another important consideration is whether the person who has agreed to care for the pet can afford to pay for the pet’s medical care.

Mutual agreement in advance is critical—not everyone is willing to take in every animal, say, for example, a spider or snake.

Pets mean the world to their owners. So, as Brown notes, “it’s really important for those pet owners to figure out the game plan [in advance].”

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