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Advice & More September 2012

Dollar Sense

What About Fido? Do You Have a Backup Plan for Your Pets if You Can’t Care for Them?

By Teresa Ambord

It’s always a good idea to post an “in case of emergency” notice somewhere, like inside the back door, specifying how many pets you have and their names. If emergency personnel need to come to your home, they can’t rescue pets they don’t know exist.

Americans love their pets. We make them part of the family, we spend small fortunes on them, often even when it means we forgo spending on other pleasures. We may share our pillows with them. But most of us would say it’s well worth it for the companionship they bring. There is one thing that most of us do not do, and that’s make plans for what will happen to Fido or Fluffy if we should pass away first, or even become incapacitated.

You don’t have to do what Oprah Winfrey has done, creating a trust that leaves millions for pet care, but while there is time, think through who will care for your furry friends if you cannot. Otherwise, the sad truth is, they may end up in shelters or euthanized. It doesn’t have to be complicated. In fact it may be as simple as having a serious talk with your kids or other close relatives or trusted friends, and getting an agreement about providing a home for the pets when you can’t. Keep in mind, just because you adore Fluffy and Fido, your family and friends may view them as annoying and spoiled. What do you do? Plan!

Whether or not you have the resources to set up a trust for your pet, here are some points to think about, from the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).

  • Find at least two friends or family members who are responsible, who will agree to take temporary, emergency care of your pets, including veterinary care if necessary. Be sure they also have contact information for your vet, as well as the names and contact information of those people you have chosen to be the permanent caregivers for your pets if that becomes necessary.
  • Make sure people around you, neighbors, friends, family, know how many pets you have and their names and how to contact the emergency caregivers. If your pets run to secret hiding places when strangers appear or when they are scared, make note of this for the emergency caregivers who need to round them up. Also be sure any medication orders are written down for your chosen caregivers.
  • You might even consider keeping a card in your wallet listing the names and contact information for your emergency pet caregivers.
  • It’s always a good idea to post an “in case of emergency” notice somewhere, like inside the back door, specifying how many pets you have and their names. If emergency personnel need to come to your home, they can’t rescue pets they don’t know exist


A Few Other Options

Other options that stop short of setting up a trust include leaving your pet to someone as a gift in your will. The law allows this because it considers your pets to be property. If you do this, you should still also consider an alternate caregiver, special requests such as choice of veterinarian, instructions for special needs, and possibly a cash gift to help pay for the pet’s ongoing care.

Because your pet is considered your property, you should know that, if you don't make specific provisions for Fido, he will go to whoever receives your tangible property. That may be acceptable to you, but it's still important to talk to that person to make sure he or she wants your pets.

Suppose there is nobody with whom you can leave your pet, what then? Some people arrange to surrender their pet to an animal adoption center so that it stands a chance of finding a new family. Some large cities have organizations such as the San Francisco SPCA Sido Service (named for a dog taken in after its owner died), where a benefit of membership is that, should you pass away, your healthy pet will be guaranteed a new home as well as medical care for life at one of the society's hospitals.


Pet Trusts

Currently more than 30 states do allow pet trusts. These are trusts that courts can monitor and enforce, to make sure that your pets receive the care that you intend and that the funds you leave are used for that purpose. To find out what your state allows, ask your legal advisor, or visit the website for, and type in “pet trust.”

Your attorney will guide you, but generally to set up a pet trust you’ll need to make decisions like these: Someone needs to be placed in charge to serve as a willing trustee. You will also need a designated caregiver (possibly the trustee). Determine how much money will go into the trust, what standard of living you want to provide for Fido, what events triggers distributions of money from the trust, and who will receive the remaining trust funds after your pet passes away.


SIDEBAR: She Left How Much to Her Pets?

They called her the Queen of Mean. Hotel billionaire Leona Helmsley may have been mean to staff, but she loved her Maltese terrier named Trouble. When Helmsley passed away in 2007 Trouble “inherited” $12 million, while two of her grandchildren got a paltry $10 million each. When the disgruntled grandkids took the issue to court, a judge said Helmsley was mentally unfit when she made her will. After redistributing her wealth Trouble ended up practically a pauper with a mere $2 million to get him through the last three years of his life. By the way, Trouble lived up to his name when his caregiver, Helmsley’s housekeeper, sued him for biting her.

To make matters worse, poor Trouble may have been shamed by his meager bequest when he learned that Oprah Winfrey has arranged to leave $30 million to her dogs. Oprah has a menagerie of several dogs and other pets, and she wants to ensure they will be pampered in perpetuity if she precedes them in death. Her pet family has changed since the will was originally written, and now includes cocker spaniels, golden retrievers, and springer spaniels, as well as other pets. The $30 million is held in a trust for her pets. But for now, each pet has its own nanny, its own website, and all meals are prepared by a special chef.

Dusty Springfield didn’t have Oprah’s wealth. But she ensured her cat Nicholas would live out his life in style which included an indoor tree house and a bed lined with one of her nightgowns, fed imported baby food and serenaded with Dusty’s songs.

Doris Duke, tobacco heiress (founder of Duke University) and the American Tobacco Company tops the list by leaving $100 million in a pet trust for her dog Minnie. The amount was challenged, but the judge let it stand as legal.

Betty White is famous for her generosity to animal charities. It’s a rumor, but rumor has it that much of her estate will go to various animal foundation.


Teresa Ambord is a former accountant and Enrolled Agent with the IRS. Now she writes full time from her home, mostly for business, and about family when the inspiration strikes.

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