By Diane C. Lade
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Often when someone tragically passes away, or becomes incapacitated, those left behind don't always know what to do with the loved ones' pets. That led The Peggy Adams Animal Rescue League in Fla.to start its Peace of Mind program. It guarantees, for a minimum $25,000 bequest left in a will, that the shelter will take in any animal immediately after the owner passes away.
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla.
All dogs may go to heaven, but what happens if their owners die before they do?
It's a question anyone with a pet should ask, experts say.
And there are South Florida professionals and organizations helping animal lovers find an answer, which can include everything from setting up private pet trusts to endowing a rescue group in exchange for lifetime care.
"There still are too many people who have a concern about their animals but don't know what to do," said Plantation, Fla., elder law attorney Stephanie Schneider. "When we start talking about our own mortality, it's scary."
Orphaned animals are more likely to be left in shelters, and possibly euthanized, if their parents haven't made plans in advance.
"Typically, what happens is someone tragically passes away, or becomes incapacitated, and the family brings the animals to us because there is no one to care for them," said Rich Anderson, executive director and CEO of the Peggy Adams Animal Rescue League, Humane Society of the Palm Beaches, in West Palm Beach, Fla.
The shelter started receiving calls from people "asking us if we had any kind of program that would give their pet a home," Anderson said.
That led Peggy Adams to start its Peace of Mind program in October. It guarantees, for a minimum $25,000 bequest left in a will, that the shelter will take in any animal immediately after the owner passes away.
"It's not surprising more people are trying to figure out how to ensure their animals will be afforded the same lifestyle they had before," Anderson said. "A lot has changed in the last 20 years in terms of pets and how they are seen as family."
Peace of Mind will provide routine veterinary care for the animal's life and immediate placement with a foster family during the search for a new forever home. Pets that prove unadoptable will live out their days with a Peggy Adams volunteer, Anderson said.
Jackie Sims, of Delray Beach, Fla., enrolled in Peace of Mind because her son, who moves frequently for his job, is her only relative in the United States. Who would take her two beloved cats, Lexi and Kumi, if she were gone?
Sims was impressed by the Peggy Adams staff and their promise that both animals would go to the same adoptive home.
"It would be heartbreaking for them if they were separated," said Sims. "They're always together."
South Florida is fertile ground for lifetime pet planning because of its high number of retirees, many living alone, with no family nearby, said Deborah Goodall, a Boca Raton probate and trust attorney with the firm Goldman, Felcoski & Stone.
She remembers one case when pets were unintentionally left without food and water "longer than anyone would have liked" because their owner had died unexpectedly and no one knew to retrieve the animals.
"We talk specifically with people about who will take the dog or cat, and how that will happen," said Goodall, who is chair-elect of The Florida Bar's real property, probate and trust law section.
Goodall said Florida changed its trust code in 2006, making requirements for animal trust options clearer. Animals have limited legal rights as they are considered property by law.
The amount she places in a trust depends on an animal's age and health and the lifestyle to which the pet has become accustomed. Hotel magnate Leona Helmsley left Trouble, her white Maltese, a $12 million inheritance. After Helmsley died in 2007, Trouble was moved to Sarasota. The dog's annual living expenses reportedly were estimated at $190,000.
Owners designate in advance who will be the pet's caretaker; who will oversee the trust; how the money will be used (sometimes the caretaker draws a fee); and what will happen to any funds left after the pet dies.
Schneider suggests also naming an alternate caretaker in case the first choice can't take the pet, and giving directions about what to do with the animal's remains upon death.
While pet trust and estate bequests usually require attorney fees, experts say there are some things forward-thinking pet owners can do that cost nothing. These include: carrying a wallet card to notify emergency personnel in the event of an accident that you have unattended pets at home; creating a pet document, kept with your personal papers, that lists your pet's veterinarian and emergency caretakers; and posting a door sign stating there are pets inside your house.
The Humane Society of Broward County in Fort Lauderdale also has a program called Peace of Mind, similar to what's offered by Peggy Adams.
Bequest requirements start at $25,000, said senior vice president Kathy Tricomi, and $100,000 ensures all of a pet's medical costs and special dietary needs are covered for life.
What attracted Plantation dog owner Sue Bracco about this particular program, she said, is that her money would go to support the society's shelter, where she has done volunteer work.
"You can't take it with you, and I don't have kids," said Bracco, 53, a senior insurance consultant who owns two pooches, Fausto and Miabella. "A lot of people don't know about the program. I hand out pamphlets about it to my friends."
Tri-County Animal Rescue, based in Boca Raton, Fla., started what it calls an "entrusted long-term pet care" program about 18 years ago. It is raising money for a new building with the hopes of expanding its program.
The nonprofit organization, which runs a "no-kill" shelter, does not euthanize animals unless they are suffering.
"People are very worried if no one will take their animals. But they don't want to take them to a shelter because they are afraid they will be put down," said co-founder and executive director Suzi Goldsmith.
Seniors who pass away often leave behind older pets with serious medical problems, making them less adoptable, said Goldsmith. "We don't want them to be discarded like old garbage," she said.
There is no required amount for an estate bequest, she said, and pets who can't be placed in new homes live out their days in private quarters at the shelter.
While will bequests are revenue generators, representatives of the three organizations agreed the best reason to encourage lifetime pet planning is to keep animals out of shelters.
Tricomi said seeing frightened animals brought in by relatives after their owner unexpectedly dies or goes into a nursing home "is one of the most difficult situations we face."
Many times, these people are seniors "and the pet was very attached to them," she said. The animal is looking around like, 'What happened? Why am I here?'"