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Is your cat in the will?
By Eve Mitchell
Contra Costa Times

After Sydney Minnerly inherited Princess Picabo, her deceased mother's cat, she wondered what would become of her pets after she passed away.

"It just got me thinking it would be a good idea to get specific about what I would like to happen when I pass on with my animal or animals," said the Mill Valley resident.

So she set up a pet trust through TrustedPetPartners.com. And while the trust does not apply to Minnerly's own cat, which died in September, new pets that come into her home will be covered by the trust, along with 14-year-old Princess Picabo.

Pet trusts, which can be done online or through an attorney, are valid in 46 states, including California, and the District of Columbia. They let an owner specify how a pet should be cared for by a designated friend or relative who will become the pet's caretaker after the owner dies or becomes too ill to provide care. The trust includes a funding source from the deceased owner to provide care until the pet passes away. A trustee, who may or may not be the caretaker, manages and distributes the pet care funds.

"The two motivations are peace of mind and all that, but there are financial provisions, too. Sometimes people don't think about that part. It can be an unplanned expense sometimes for the recipient. It requires you to think about issues you might not otherwise when you are saying, 'Hey, will you take care of my cat when I'm gone?'"

Minnerly said. She purchased her pet trust in October for a one-time fee of $289 that covers Princess Picabo and up to four additional pets that may be added later.

The cost of caring for a dog over 10 years averages out to about $15,000, while caring for a cat over 10 years averages about $10,000, according to a pet industry group. Those costs do not include pet insurance, which depending on the policy and age of the pet can cost from about $100 to several hundred dollars annually.

A Trusted Pet Partners trust can apply to cats, dogs, horses, birds, reptiles, rabbits and other animals.
It's estimated that 500,000 pets end up in shelters nationwide each year because of their owner's death or disability, said Chris Jones, an estate attorney and president of Santa Barbara-based Trusted Pet Partners, which donates up to 25 percent of its pet trust fees to nonprofit animal groups.

In 2009, a California law went into effect that permits enforceable pet trusts, which means money in the trust has to be used for a pet's care as outlined by the owner. Before, people could set up an "honorary" pet trust that conveyed a pet owner's wishes but was not legally enforceable in probate court.

"The difference between the two is a hope and prayer versus a guarantee that my expectations will get fulfilled here," Jones said. "It's nice to say my sister will (take care of a pet), but is there something in writing (and funding) to provide that?"

A pet trust does not have to be funded at the time it is created. The person who sets it up has control of any money that is in the trust while they are alive. People who want to fund a pet trust but do not have a friend or relative to act as a caretaker can name an animal welfare organization to serve instead. It's essential to check in advance with trustees and caretakers, whether they are an individual or an organization, before you name them in your trust, Jones said.

Los Gatos-based PetGuardian.com charges $500 to set up a pet trust for cats, dogs, horses and birds, and can be used for up to four pets. Once people set up a pet trust, they must remember to update them if new pets come into the house or old ones pass away, or if trustees or caretakers are changed, said founder Amy Shever, a longtime Bay Area volunteer in animal welfare groups.

Part of the proceeds from the sale of Pet Guardian trusts go to animal shelter groups such as Best Friends Animal Society. In cases where a designated caregiver is no longer able to provide care for pets named in a trust, Best Friends will attempt to find a backup caregiver. "They will help find a home for the pet. They have a nationwide network," Shever said.

While online pet trusts are an option, "it's good to check in with an attorney, even for a brief consultation," said Tina Ahn, the San Francisco SPCA's director of development.

Elaine Lee, a Berkeley attorney whose estate-planning practice includes pet trusts, has seen more interest in them since the pet trust law was passed. Depending on the complexity and number of pets involved, a trust prepared by an attorney could cost anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000, she said. Unlike Trusted Pet Partners and Pet Guardian -- which don't charge for adding new animals and other changes -- attorneys typically charge for changes and additions to a trust.

Consumers considering an online pet trust should educate themselves to make sure it's valid and comprehensive, she said. "Most attorneys won't review a trust or administer a trust drawn up by a client because they are legally responsible for anything they sign off on," said Lee.

A pet can be provided for in a will, but that's not the best approach. Wills do not address what happens if you become disabled. Wills can also get tied up in court, which means money set aside for a pet's care cannot be spent until legal issues are settled. "You don't want to just put it in a will. It could cause delays," Lee said. Still, a will is better than nothing. "It's a legal document," she said.

PET TRUST BASICS

What or who is a trustee?
A trustee is an individual or organization that agrees to be legally responsible for securing, investing, managing and distributing trust assets.

What or who is a caregiver?
A caregiver is an individual or organization that agrees to be legally responsible for the day to day care of your pets. Their duties include providing housing, food, exercise, training, grooming, socializing, and medical care for your pets. The caregiver will care for your pets as you instruct them in your pet trust.
Can the trustee and caregiver be the same person?
Yes, but we recommend not doing so if possible. Besides managing the financial part of a trust, a trustee also provides a basic checks and balances by reviewing the caregiver s fulfillment of pet trust instructions. And, the caregiver is there to provide that second perspective for the trustee.

Funding a pet trust.
• There are many ways to fund your pet trust. Some simple options are to: Keep you cars, motorcycles, boats, etc., registered in the name of your pet trust
• Keep one of your savings or retirement accounts in the name of your pet trust
• Specify artwork or collections to be used
• Set up a simple life insurance policy with the pet trust as beneficiary






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