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Estate Planning for Pets

have on occasion heard statements such as “there just may be something wrong with people who don’t love animals.” During my childhood, my parents made sure that my siblings and I knew how to love and care for a myriad of wonderful pets. We had ferrets, rabbits, desert tortoises, fish, parakeets, cockatiels, Samoyeds and Pomeranians. We loved and enjoyed horses, pigs, cows, turkeys, cats, and chickens raised by our extended family members. As I have brought up my own children, my husband and I have tried to carry on the traditions of loving and caring for animals. Together with our children, we have nurtured ferrets, parakeets, rabbits, and always a chocolate Labrador Retriever or two. Breaking our Labrador tradition, over the last 12 years we have raised and loved two small rescue dogs; one, a miniature pinscher, and the other, a chiweenie (Chihuahua-dachshund mix). As my children have moved out and practiced adulting, part of that growing up has included raising more chocolate Labradors, a German shepherd, and a golden retriever. The lessons these animals teach are invaluable in developing my children and grandchildren, allowing them to feel unconditional love from their pets. I often ask, “How could one ever complain about a dog when they are happy to eat the same things every day, never hold a grudge, are always excited to see you, and don’t talk back to you?”

In my office we frequently have clients who feel the same devotion to their pets that my children and I feel to ours. I am always saddened by the fact that most of our pets’ life expectancies are so much shorter than ours and we have to say goodbye to them long before we would like to do so. Sometimes, though, our pets survive us, and most people take seriously their personal responsibility in making sure that their orphaned pets live out their lives safely and with love.

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All 50 states have now passed statutes allowing for individuals to create “Pet Trusts” and for one to leave money for the care and maintenance of a pet or pets upon one’s passing. Arizona Revised Statutes §14-2907 and §14-10408 both allow for such accommodations under Arizona law for 21 years or less after the death of the creator. Arizona has been very forward thinking in this area and has had provisions in its code for almost 25 years.

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There are alternatives to actually setting up a Pet Trust, such as giving money to a friend or family member with an unwritten understanding that they will assume the care of pets, or making a charitable contribution to an animal charity which then agrees to arrange for the care of one’s pets. Sometimes there is an understanding that a certain person will care for another’s pets without any offer of compensation. These are good souls who truly love animals, but who may in some circumstances lack the financial means to make choices about pet care in the manner that the original pet owner would have desired. For example, the caregiver may not be able to cover costs for a diabetic cat, and due to lack of finances may choose to euthanize even though the cat could enjoy excellent quality of life with regular medication and treatment.

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Most of the time, however, individuals want to ensure that the one making their pet’s financial decisions will also freely make expenditures for the pet; they likewise select a trusted individual to ensure proper caregiving, and they develop a backup plan for any unforeseen circumstances. A Pet Trust will have a trustee who is charge of the funds left for the care of the animal. This trustee will be responsible for the investment of the funds and the expenditures of the funds. The Pet Trust will also have a Caretaker. This is the individual or organization that will provide the caregiving personally. It is vital to have successor individuals or organizations in place within the document to accommodate for any contingencies in which the individual or organization is unwilling or unable to serve in an appointed role. The Caretaker and the Trustee can and should be entitled to compensation for the time and effort they expend in making sure that one’s pets receive excellent care and love. A pet owner, as the creator of the provisions within the Pet Trust, can specify how compensation should be determined. The pet owner can determine location, quality of care, food, and many other items within the Pet Trust.

The Trustee and the Caregiver of the Pet Trust are often the same person. If this is the case, one may want to encourage fidelity to one’s wishes by putting checks and balances in place to ensure that the provisions of the Pet Trust are honored. This is accomplished by having an individual or organization in place to take a second look at what actually happens within the Pet Trust. This position can be called the Enforcer. The Enforcer’s job can be as complicated as monthly visits and receiving of reports, or as simple as receiving annual financial statements by mail to review expenditures.

One may not know beforehand which pets one will have upon passing, but this is not a problem. You can create a Pet Trust to be flexible in that it covers any pets owned at death. One may not want pets that have close relationships to be separated, and this can be outlined in the Pet Trust. One may want pets to remain in the environment they had always known; thus, the Pet Trust can specify that the caregiver lives in or maintains the residence for the animals until their deaths. Anything specific to you and your pets and your wishes for their future can be built into the design of the Pet Trust.

How do you determine how much money to leave is enough? For some pet owners, all that they have is barely enough. I have recently had clients leave over a million dollars in their Pet Trust for their pets. It is important in a situation like this that there are contingent beneficiaries in place within the Pet Trust, as it is highly unlikely that the entire amount would be expended for the pets during their lifetimes. I personally think that if it is important to you that no expense be spared in order to provide the best care for your pet, you should err on the side of generosity and leave more than you think could ever be needed. Chances are that most will be left at the end of your pet’s life, what remains can be distributed to other beneficiaries determined by you. When the planning is done in this mindset, choices will not be made to economize funds, but to provide quality care for your pets.

Pet Trust considerations are not silly and should not be taken lightly. Your pets love you unconditionally every day and count on you to provide for their basic needs with very little or no expectations. Whether furry, feathered, or scaly, they are certainly worth the amount time it will take to appropriately plan and consider for their future.

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Lora Johnson

Lora G. Johnson was raised in Phoenix, Arizona. She received her Bachelor of Arts in Psychology, cum laude, from Arizona State University and graduated from the University Honors' College. Her research was published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. She also earned her Juris Doctorate from Arizona State University in 1999.

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