Your Money: How to protect your prized pet with a trust

NEW YORK (Reuters) - It is a sad story when seniors’ pets show up at an animal shelter: they are often abandoned when their owners become infirm or die without insuring that the pets will be taken in by someone else.

A dog watches as customers to arrive on the opening day of Dog Cafe, a coffee shop where people can adopt shelter dogs in Los Angeles, California, United States, April 7, 2016. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Wills and estate plans are hard enough for most people to fathom. Only 67 percent of Americans over 55 have any sort of written testament, according to FindLaw, a unit of Thomson Reuters.

Legal planning for pets is rare.

That is because provisions for pets are considered a fancy of the ultra-rich. Much of the negative association is due to the 2007 lawsuit over real estate tycoon Leona Helmsley’s attempt to leave $12 million to her dog. (It was cut to $2 million.)

Setting up a trust for pets such as cats, dogs and horses has evolved since then, and now there are ways for pet owners to prepare simple and inexpensive documents that can insure their beloved companions do not end up abandoned.

One place to start is the ASPCA’s pet planning website. There are also ways to download pet protection agreements, such as at the online service LegalZoom, which start at $39.

Reuters spoke with Rachel Hirschfeld, the attorney who developed LegalZoom’s agreement, about why animal owners need to think about their pets’ futures.

Q: What happens to a pet when the owner is incapacitated or dies and there is no plan for them?

A: If animals have been abandoned, by law, they are required to go to a city shelter. They are property.

Q: How many people in your experience make a provision for their pets in their wills?

A: It’s about 25 percent. Putting a sentence in the will is the cheapest. There’s not really any added cost to what you are doing. You just say, ‘I leave my dog to...’

You might want to add more, and say, ‘my dog only eats this kind of food, please take him to this vet.’

Q: What if you want to leave funds for the care of the pet and more detailed instructions in a formal document?

A: You go to an attorney and pay the price. Some people do it for $750. I’ve heard of more than $2,500.

Choose wisely. It’s not the cost that makes a good agreement; it’s the talent. I caution people to only go to a lawyer who has done them successfully. If you don’t know what you are doing, you can get sued.

Q: Do you have to provide funds to care for your pets when you die?

A: You don’t have to leave a dime, or leave as much as you want. The average person that I’ve dealt with leaves $25,000. But funds are not required.

The most important thing is to leave beneficiaries in percentiles that equal 100 percent, not exact dollar amounts. Because if you say you are leaving $1,000.00, and there’s $1000.01 in the account (or less than the exact amount), you could have problems because then a court would have to decide what to do about the excess (or deficit). The goal is to keep it out of court.

Q: You have adopted abandoned elderly dogs at the shelter. Does you use your own agreement for them?

A: I wrote the agreement for my own animals. It started off with different pets, but the agreement is for all the pets that I have when I need this to be enacted.

I just adopted two dogs. I was at a shelter helping somebody, and there were these two dogs there that had been left by a woman whose father had just died and her mother had died a few years earlier.

I saw them there huddled and scared to death. Two weeks later, I came back, and they were still there. If that man and his wife were looking down, can you imagine? So I adopted them.

Editing by Lauren Young and Dan Grebler