Who Gets the Dog?

Your pet, be it a dog, a cat, a fish, or a bird, no doubt occupies an important role in your life. For many their pet is a family member. What should you do to plan for the care of your pet in the event of your incapacity or death? First, prepare an alert card for your wallet. Include the pet’s information: name, type of animal, any special instructions, and where the pet can be found.

This information will alert your caregivers in the event of emergency that an animal requires care in your absence. You should include the name of a contact person who can provide care while you are gone. In addition, affixing a sticker to your door alerting others, such as firemen and emergency personnel, that pets are inside can be a helpful measure. Such stickers are available from organizations like the Humane Society of the United States. Second, you should leave detailed care instructions with your estate documents. These could give details on which veterinarian you use, what type of food is best, the feeding schedule, and a walk schedule if appropriate. Third, you will likely want to designate the person, as well as alternates, to take ownership of the pet if you are incapacitated or deceased. You may do this through different methods. The first possibility is that you leave a Memorandum with your will indicating who will take the pet; however, the Memorandum is not legally binding and cannot be used to transfer money to the new owner. As an alternative to the Memorandum, you may consider using your will to designate an owner for the pet along with a monetary bequest; however, in the worse-case scenario the new owner takes your pet to the pound and uses the money to visit Tahiti. If you want to ensure that the funds you have designated for your pet are used for your pet, you may want to establish a pet trust either through your will or in a revocable or “living” trust. The North Carolina legislature has authorized the use of such trusts. The trust you establish will name a Trustee, who is in charge of investing the funds and making distributions for the benefit of the pet. The Trustee is not usually the same person as the owner so that a check and balance system is maintained over the funds. The Trustee use the funds for his or her benefit. The optimal arrangement is a monthly distribution to the owner of the pet for the pet’s benefit. This amount can be fixed by the terms of the trust or can be based on receipts for reimbursement submitted by the owner. How much of your estate should fund a bequest for the new owner or a trust if one is established? You should attempt to estimate the costs of maintaining your pet. You might track these for a year to obtain information on annual expenses. You could then determine the life expectancy of the pet and use that as a gauge for an acceptable amount. Obviously you should consider any special expenses, such as medical care or boarding fees. Funding the trust with significantly more funds than will be needed could result in a challenge from human beneficiaries of the estate. The North Carolina statute allows a court to decrease the amount in trust if it concludes it is excessive. You may want to state that the funds will pass to a charity if they are determined to be excessive thereby reducing the incentive of human beneficiaries to mount a challenge. Finally, you should check with the person you wish to become your pet’s caregiver to ensure that they are willing and able to accept the pet. You also should annually check in with that person to assure that circumstances have not changed to prohibit them from becoming the new owner at the appropriate time. Your pets look to you for care and love. Make sure you continue that for them even if you are no longer able to provide it. Originally published in Southern Neighbor, June 2009

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