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In Pets We Trust

sitting pretty

— artparadigm/Getty Images


Kathleen McCabe weeps when she recalls the death of Alexis Jarose. Not only did McCabe lose her best friend, but she couldn't save Jarose's dog, Schweppes, a wirehaired fox terrier. "I would have willingly taken him, but when Alexis died, her caregiver immediately put the dog to sleep. There was nothing I could do, because Lex had revised her will leaving out any mention of Schweppes," she recalled.

A similar fate won't befall McCabe's beloved terrier, Spencer. Since McCabe first crafted a will with her husband, Stephen, 40 years ago, provisions have always been made for their pets.

Animals who outlive their owners face uncertain fates. Under the best circumstances, a family member or friend cares for your pet for the rest of its life. If not, your pet goes to a shelter, is euthanized, or is simply let out the front door. The Humane Society of the United States estimates six to eight million dogs and cats enter shelters annually. Only half are adopted.

Should an accident befall payroll specialist Millicent Reed, 50, or her husband Jimmy, her sister-in-law Patricia would get first right of refusal to their seven cats. Another sister-in-law is next in line. Reed said a plan is essential. Six years ago, her aunt was in an auto accident and later died.

"We knew my aunt's cat, Pepper, was alone, but it took us a week to fly to my aunt's home," she said. By then Pepper was out of food and scrounging through the garbage cans. Now Reed always leaves her pets enough accessible food and water to last at least a week should something catastrophic occur.

Thinking of leaving a chunk of change to Fido or Fluffy? Think again. "In our current legal system, an animal can't own property. Some human has to be in charge. A will is a transfer of assets. Once it's done, there's no ongoing supervision," explained Mary Randolph, a non-practicing lawyer and the author of "Every Dog's Legal Guide" (2007).

Randolph suggests a pet trust. This legal document—recognized in 39 states and the District of Columbia—outlines the continued care and maintenance of domestic animals and names new caregivers or directs trustees to find new homes for pets. "A trustee has a legal duty of carrying out your wishes," she said.

While owners may simply include their pets as provisions in their wills, Michael Markarian of the Humane Society believes a trust is a better option in case of disability. He said, "Wills may take weeks to be executed and could be contested, but a living trust can be written to immediately take effect."

Creating one does take time. Select a pet-friendly lawyer or estate planner and expect to pay from $500 to $1,000 for their services. Be sure to consider your pet's financial future. Some owners make outright gifts of cash for their animals' care.

Hilary Lane of Louisville, Colo., has set aside $5,000 to offset costs for the person who ends up with her dogs, Luna and Frisbee. Likewise Carol Brown, 72, an antiques dealer in Walpole, N.H., has money set aside for the care of her three Norwich terriers and two horses, should any outlive her. "I didn't want to place a financial burden on their caregivers," she said.

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