A very recent article in the Wall Street Journal was brought to our attention: any pet lovers should have a plan for their beloved pets.
** Mention “pets” and “estate planning” in the same sentence, and many people think of the late Leona Helmsley, the Manhattan hotelier and convicted tax cheat who left $12 million to Trouble, her Maltese pooch, and also specified that her trust of more than $5 billion be used to benefit dogs.
A judge later reduced Trouble’s personal bequest to $2 million, and the Helmsley estate decided to give only $1 million to dog causes. But the will added to the public perception of Helmsley as someone with a distant relationship to reality.
That’s too bad, says Sue Stevens, a financial planner, CPA and self-described “huge animal lover” who counsels clients to consider their pets when making estate plans.
Stevens, the founder of Stevens Wealth Management in Deerfield, Ill., discusses pet planning in her new book, Put Your Money Where Your Heart Is, as well as on her Web site, Financial-Happiness.com. “You don’t have to be Leona Helmsley,” she says, “but if you don’t have a plan, your loyal companions could end up in a shelter,” where they will be euthanized or donated to research labs if they are not adopted.
Pets need not get the royal treatment in a will, says Stevens, who was director of financial planning at Morningstar for nine years. But she cites four steps that any pet lover should take when planning an estate:
1. Choose a “pet guardian.” It should be someone who wants to care for your pets and understands their needs. Make sure to name contingent guardians, in the event your first choice becomes unwilling or unable to serve. “Do not assume the people you choose as beneficiaries for your assets are the best people to care for your animals,” says Stevens.
2. Decide on financial assistance. It costs about $1,400 a year on average to care for a dog, and $1,000 for a cat, according to a recent survey by the American Pet Products Association. You can expect either pet to live at least 13 years. As Leona Helmsley demonstrated, it’s possible to fund a trust for a pet, and the trustee need not be the person responsible for care.
3. Add language to your trust to provide for pet care. Include instructions on how the funds are to be used (food, veterinary care, pet sitters, grooming, etc.) as well as plans for interim care until long-term placement is completed. Your lawyer can do this, but Stevens provides sample language on her Web site.
4. Write instructions for your caregiver. This should include a complete medical record, feeding instructions, a list of favorite toys, even names of friends–both human and animal.
A related concern is establishing care for your pets if you are incapacitated or require nursing care. Plans should be discussed in advance with the person you have named as your financial power of attorney. Stevens also recommends the Web site of Eden Alternative (edenalt.org), a nonprofit organization that advocates for improving the quality of elder care by, among other initiatives, encouraging the right to have pets in institutional settings. The Web site lists dozens of pet-friendly facilities around the country. In addition, Lollypop Farm (lollypop.org) provides financial assistance so the elderly can keep pets in their homes.
One pet in need of no public assistance is Helmsley’s dog Trouble, who was last reported living comfortably with the manager of the Helmsley Sandcastle Hotel in Sarasota, Fla. **