California Estate Planning And Your Pets

In this past Sunday’s edition of the Los Angeles Times, David Colker wrote an interesting article about setting up a trust for your pet as provided under California law. This article is along the lines of my earlier blog entry entitled “No Kidding – A California Trust For Your Pet” written on December 17, 2007. Here is what David Colker wrote:

Leona Helmsley was a nice mom — to her dog.

Just look at her will. The multimillionaire hotel owner, whose nickname was the Queen of Mean, left nothing to her late son’s children when she died last year.

But her beloved Maltese named Trouble got $12 million to keep him in the manner to which he was accustomed.

It became a national joke, but it also put a spotlight on a serious concern.

“It raised awareness about what happens to pets if they outlive us,” said Michael Markarian, executive vice president of the Humane Society of the United States.

“We think of pets as having a short life span so we assume it won’t happen. But just in case, we should ensure they go to a loving home.”

Without a trust fund or some other way to provide for care, a long-adored pet could end up in a shelter.

“It’s not uncommon,” said Ryan Drabek, spokesman for Orange County Animal Care Services. “We get calls from the coroner to come pick up a pet if there are no family members who will do it.”

Pet trusts have the force of law in 39 states, including California. In general, the money is turned over to a designated caregiver — often a family member or friend — who takes the pet in.

But the California law, which went into effect in 1991, is considered weak compared with most of the others. It states that the wishes expressed “may be performed by the trustee for the life of the animal.”

The problem is the word “may.”

“It makes the law unenforceable,” said Adam Keigwin, spokesman for state Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco), who has introduced legislation to make pet trusts more bulletproof.

The revised law says instructions in a pet trust should not be considered a “mere request.” The bill was approved by unanimous vote in the Senate in January and is awaiting action in the Assembly.

In case of a challenge, the proposal directs that courts “carry out the general intent of the trust.”

Great care should be taken in planning a pet trust, Markarian said. It’s important to have a detailed discussion with the designated caregiver.

“It’s not something to spring on someone by surprise after you die,” he said. “Suddenly, they find out they are taking care of Fido or Fluffy.”

Markarian also suggested naming at least one backup in case the primary designee can’t take the pet when you die.

The people you name can’t be forced to take care of the animal. If you don’t plan well, the pet could still end up in a shelter until a new home for it is found, if ever.

To determine the amount of money that should be set aside, a pet owner should figure out how much will be spent for food and regular medical care for the estimated life of the animal and then add a substantial amount in case of major medical problems.

Still, the funds could get depleted. At that point, all you can hope is that affection will take over.

“If you pick the right person,” Markarian said, “that pet is not going to be abandoned when the money runs out.”