PACIFIC GROVE, Calif. - What happens if your pets outlive you or you become too ill to take care of them?
These are difficult questions. But if you create legal documents for your pet or pets, they will receive the care that they need and deserve.
That was the subject of a recent workshop at Peace of Mind Dog Rescue, the nonprofit that has placed more than 1,000 pets since it began in 2009.
Two attorneys and two financial advisers were on hand to talk about the legal and financial avenues to ensure pets have a future after their owners die or become incapacitated.
Margaret Clark and her daughter Whitney W. Clark, attorneys at the Clark Law Office in Salinas, are offering to set up trusts for pets free of charge. The firm recently prepared its first pet trust for a person with six dogs.
"We wanted to do something to give back to the critters," Margaret Clark said.
California established the legality of a pet trust in 1999, Clark said. A pet trust is a legally enforceable document. There are two steps involved: deciding on a pet caregiver and on a trustee.
A trust, Clark said, is better than leaving money for a pet's care in a will. Wills must go through probate in court, and it can take a long time to conclude. A trust does not have to be probated, thus eliminating delay and court costs. Also, distributing money to benefactors through a will requires a court order.
In a trust a designated trustee can distribute the funds.
"The biggest problem ... to me," Clark said, "is that delay (for probating the will). No one will have legal authority over that pet."
A pet trust can be as specific as you want regarding their care. The more specific, the better.
Clark told of an owner of a black lab named Clancy. The owner chose a caregiver and a bank was the trustee. Money was distributed for Clancy's care through the bank. No one monitored the caregiver. For years money was sent for Clancy's care.
Then one day the bank decided to pay a visit to the caregiver. It turned out that Clancy had died years before. The caregiver bought a new black labs, named them Clancy and continued to receive payments for their care.
Kristina Kuprina, president and client portfolio manger for Sequoia Wealth Advisors, had another story.
A wealthy person left money in a trust for her two cats. Family members were the caregivers. There was no mention in the trust about spaying or neutering the cats. The caregivers eventually wound up with 78 cats, leading to family disputes and court battles.
When deciding how much money to designate for pet care, Clark said, "Sit down and say, 'How much do I spend on my pet during a year?' and add in factors for more than one pet."
Choosing a trustee is most important, Clark said. Be sure it is someone who will care for your pet, or choose a nonprofit like Peace of Mind Dog Rescue, which places pets with new owners or foster families.
"When you pick a trustee you really have to choose carefully ...," Clark said. "Always ask yourself the 'what-ifs.'"
Such as what if the trustee dies before the pet. Make sure there is a way to continue the pet's care. Also, be sure there is a backup plan designating who will get any leftover money if the pet dies.
Kuprina pointed out that about 5,000 pets a year are euthanized in California after a pet owner dies.
There are many ways, she said, to leave money for pet care. They can include life insurance policies, stocks, IRAs and giving money for care to an agency like Peace of Mind Dog Rescue, either in cash, with real estate or other funds.
Nonprofits like Peace of Mind Dog Rescue receive 100 percent of donations because of their nonprofit status.
"There's a lot of creative ways to fund (pet care) during your lifetime or after your lifetime ...," Kuprina said. "Look at the entire situation and what is the most efficient way to do it."
She cautioned to check with a tax professional before making a decision. And reviewing and updating your beneficiaries is especially important.
Making the right decisions now will ensure your pet lives a good life after you depart.