Caring For Fido From the Grave

Proposed Connecticut law would allow for trust funds for pet.

Behind every cat lounging on a chair or snoozing in the sun at the Last Post Sanctuary, there's the story of an owner who loved the animal enough to plan for its life without them.

But in Connecticut and many other states, that planning is much more complicated than it sounds. Pets cannot legally own property, and many owners are finding that setting aside money for their care is fraught with pitfalls because there's little guarantee their chosen caretaker will follow their wishes.

Now, Connecticut and several other states are considering laws allowing their residents to create legally binding trusts, in which money could be allocated to care for their pets when those owners die or become incapacitated.

Unlike a will, trusts can go into effect before a person's death -- and the courts or a trustee can step in to enforce the terms if a pet is neglected or the money is not spent properly.

"If you're not a pet lover you might not really understand, but there's a real need for a legal pathway for people to be able to do this," said state Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, one of the Connecticut bill's supporters.

"We're not talking about being provided for in a matter of luxury, but simply just ensuring pets have a place of safety and shelter, a place to be cared for and fed, when that owner can no longer do it themselves," she said.

That's the goal of the Last Post Sanctuary, a cat retirement home on 37 acres in northwest Connecticut about 10 miles from the Massachusetts border.

Most of its 150 cats were left to the facility's custody through arrangements with financial donations in the owners' wills, or brought in by owners' families when the owners became incapacitated.

None are there under terms of pet trusts, since Connecticut doesn't have them. But Joseph Federici, the sanctuary's executive director, says he thinks those documents would give people more options and peace of mind at a time they need it most.

"Not everyone has someone who can care for their pets when they die or move into a nursing home, and that's a terrible stress for them when they're trying to decide what to do," he said.

Connecticut's proposed law allowing the creation of pet trusts awaits action in the state Senate. Forty states already allow residents to create some form of trusts for their pets' long-term care.

But those laws also raise concerns. Some worry the estate-planning process may be abused by eccentric or angry owners, who could purposely keep money from other heirs by vastly overfunding trusts for Fluffy or Fido.

Hotel queen Leona Helmsley's decision to leave $12 million in a trust for her 9-year-old dog brought the issue to light, though a Manhattan judge later reduced the amount to $2 million.

It's a case that prompted Connecticut lawmakers to add a provision to their proposed bill, letting probate judges adjust trusts in which the amount is clearly excessive. The trusts would also end after a certain number of years or when the person's last pet dies.

Sara Amundson, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Humane Society Legislative Fund, said the Helmsley case caused "a little bit of backlash," but also may help in the long run by focusing attention on pet trusts.

"We've got 3 to 4 million cats, dogs, kittens and puppies going into our shelter system every year in U.S., and we know some percentage of them are pets that have to be given up because no provisions have been made for them," she said.

Even designating a trusted caretaker in a will is not a guarantee of a pet's long-term welfare, she said.

For instance, that caretaker could move to a place that does not allow pets, might scrimp on veterinary care or may and off the pet to someone else -- and without a trust in place to enforce the original owner's wishes, nothing can be done about it, Amundson said.

She said Connecticut is among 10 states without laws allowing pet trusts. The others: Massachusetts, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Vermont and West Virginia.

Maryland passed a law this spring allowing pet trusts starting Oct. 1.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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