This story was originally published in the Chicago Tribune Prime Time senior living section.
Have you ever thought about what will happen to your dog or cat if you arrive at the Happy Hunting Grounds before they do?
This is a situation more and more pet owners are formally preparing for by including their pets in their estate planning and emergency preparedness.
In 2005, Illinois passed the Illinois Pet Trust Act, which allows an attorney to draw up a trust to care for a pet.
“It’s just coming into vogue,” says attorney Ted Kuczek of Kuczek & Associates in Highland Park, whose firm focuses on estate planning. Kuczek personally gives seminars around Chicagoland on pet care planning.
When considering your pet’s potential future without you, first decide who your pet’s guardian should be, Kuczek says. “Who can give your pet the lifestyle it wants and needs? Look at the guardian’s age, lifestyle, physical abilities and housing situation. Then clear it with them, because you don’t want this to be a surprise. You want to have it in writing in a legal document that they will be the designated caregiver. Then name a backup in case that person is not able when the time comes.
”Next, decide the amount of money to designate for your pet’s care. Consider vet bills, food, medication, kenneling, toys, treats, dog walkers, cat sitters, etc. Remember that the pet will age and may require expensive treatments, such as chiropractic, acupuncture or chemotherapy.
Cash for care
Kuczek says the dozen or so pet trusts he has done in the past year have ranged in size from $5,000 to more than $100,000 left for pet care. (With the higher amount, the interest and/or dividends are used for the pet’s care and the principal is left to a beneficiary after the death of the pet.)
Keep in mind that leaving extraordinary sums for pet care has made headlines in America, most notably when hotelier Leona Helmsley left $12 million to her Maltese, Trouble, in 2007. A judge later knocked it down to $2 million, so it’s important to include proof of how you arrived at your amount, Kuczek says.
Under the Illinois Pet Trust Act, you are not actually leaving money to the animal, which is illegal. You are leaving it to the trustee (or caregiver, if they are the same person) for the pet’s expenses.A pet trust can be a standalone trust, or a sub trust of your living trust. A pet trust usually adds about $1,000 to the cost of a living trust, Kuczek says.
If you don’t have a trust, you can bequeath your pet to someone in your will and leave them money to care for it. However, wills are administered by the probate system, which often takes one to two years to settle an estate, and necessitates hiring an attorney, Kuczek says. That means the money for the pet’s care could be tied up for a while.
While long-term planning is great, every pet owner should have a short-term plan in place for their pet in case of an accident or a death, says KC Theisen, director of pet care issues at The Humane Society of the United States. (Its website has an excellent fact sheet on planning and preparedness at humanesociety.org.)
Theisen urges pet owners to find a local person who can come to their house, get the pet and care for it within hours of an emergency.
“Make sure the person knows the pet, its requirements and routine, and where its food and care items are kept,” she says. It doesn’t hurt to set aside some emergency money for the pet’s temporary care as well. If you board your pets on vacation, tell someone where they are being housed.
Any pet shelter can tell you that lack of emergency pet care brings a lot of pets through their doors when owners fall ill or die, and family members are unable or unwilling to care for the pet.
Some shelters have safe harbor programs for pets whose owners are between homes, have moved to a nursing home or passed away, Theisen says. “They are preventing that pet from losing its home by looking out for it for a while.”
Planning ahead is even more critical with nontraditional pets such as birds, reptiles and horses, which can live a long time and require costly specialized care, she adds.
And please don’t specify that you want your pet euthanized upon your death, Kuczek says. “Courts can and do reverse this decision. This leaves the pet homeless and penniless as well.”