When a celebrity passes away, Georgia will and trust lawyers often watch for news of their affairs, hoping that the celebrity in question had a great estate plan in place. With the recent loss of comedian Joan Rivers, it was reassuring to see that she had planned well for her loved ones, including her pets.
At the time of her death, Rivers’ estate was worth approximately $150 million, and she clearly knew that estate planning was no joking matter. Most of her assets were left to her daughter Melissa and her grandson Cooper. However, the celebrity also took the additional step of setting up a pet trust for her four dogs.
How Pet Trusts Work
Pet trusts have become somewhat popular these days, which is great news for companion animals who have been left behind. Not only will the person creating the trust designate a guardian for the pets, he or she will also set aside funds for the animals’ upkeep. There is also a trustee named who is in charge of the financial aspects of the trust. In some cases, the guardian or caretaker is also the trustee, but in others a separate person is designated. The trustee disperses funds to the guardian, lessening the likelihood of the guardian misusing the money for his or her own benefit. An additional safeguard is to photograph or microchip your pets so that fraud cannot be committed later.
Better Than a Will
While your Georgia pet trust lawyer may still encourage you to have a will in order to disperse your estate, those wanting to provide for their pets are probably better off creating an additional pet trust. Animals are not allowed to own property, so leaving anything to a pet via your will is unlikely to work. Instead, a pet trust is set up specifically for the animal’s benefit while having the oversight and management of actual humans.
The terms of trusts are not typically made public (one of the reasons Georgia will and trust lawyers like them so much), so it’s not really known how much Joan Rivers provided in her pet trust. What is known is that her long-time assistant Jocelyn Pickett will be the dogs’ caretaker. Many organizations are excited about the fact that such a high-profile celebrity has created a pet trust, hoping that it brings awareness to the possibility and improves the lives of animals whose owners pass away.
Now that the champagne has been consumed and the party horns have been put away, it’s time to really begin the New Year. You may or may not be sticking to those resolutions you made on January 1st, but even if they are a vague memory at this point, I challenge you to add one more resolution to your list — review your estate plan.
Here’s a checklist to get you started:
- Look for your estate planning documents and see if they are still in the place where you left them. Check your fireproof safe, safety deposit box, or other location where you store the actual documents. In addition, make sure your electronic copies are where you last left them. You may have chosen to keep them on a CD or on your home computer, in any case, make sure they are still accessible. Additionally, make sure your heirs, executor, or trust administrator know where they are.
- Review your children’s long-term and short-term guardian nominations. Has anything happened either in your children’s lives or your guardian’s lives that may make you rethink things? Has the person (people) you’ve named as guardians moved, had a child, divorced, or remarried? If so, does this impact your decision? Have any changes happened that might make you rethink the people you named as short-term guardians?
- Did any of your children turn 18? If so, you need to make sure that they have the proper legal documents in place. They may not have many assets so they may not need a full-blown estate plan, but they will need a signed healthcare power of attorney and living trust in case something happens to them. Without these legal documents in place, you may not be able to speak for them.
- Update, review, or consider a pet trust. If you currently have a pet trust, has anything happened that would make you rethink it? Did something happen to your pet that may mean there are more medical expenses than you thought? Did you get a new pet this year that you want to be sure will be cared for if something happens to you?
- Think through 2014 and list any substantial assets you may have acquired. If you have new assets, make sure they are transferred into your trust. If they aren’t, those assets could end up in probate even though you thoughtfully created a trust to avoid this.
- Review and think about your asset distribution. Does your trust still reflect your wishes for how you would like to distribute your assets? Again, life events such as births, deaths, marriage and divorce may impact the decisions you made about this.
- Check your insurance policies. Does your life insurance still reflect an amount that would support your family if something happens to you? Has something happened in the past year that would require you raise that amount?
- Are you still happy with your decision regarding who should administer your estate? Is he or she still willing to accept this duty? Has anything happened in the last year that would make you wonder whether this person is still able to perform this function? If you are in doubt, you may consider discussing the person you chose and make changes if necessary.
- Update your family’s legacy. Each year you should update your written legacy whether it is in writing or recorded. Be sure to note family member milestones and accomplishments. This will most likely be the most valuable part of your estate plan so be sure to spend time on this.
As I tell my clients, your estate plan is a document that changes just as your life changes. While every change in your life doesn’t mean that you need to update your estate plan, it is important to think through the past year’s events and experiences to make sure that your estate plan will still take care of your family just has you planned.
So many Americans are pet owners, and estate lawyers in Atlanta have various ways of helping their clients to care for these pets. To be honest, it’s pretty common to overlook the potential need to plan for a pet after your death, but it’s something that more and more people are recognizing as an integral part of their own estate planning process. Most of the time, a person just assumes that their children or a friend will simply take the pet into their home, but that may be an overly-optimistic plan. Instead, it might make better sense for pet owners to spend a little time with the estate planning lawyer to put plans in place for the animal’s long-term care and happiness. The methods for setting up this kind of plan can vary. You and your attorney may feel that it’s reasonable to simply outline your wishes in the will. On the other hand, you may prefer to create an actual “pet trust” that not only lays out your wishes but also funds them.
Choose a Guardian
Probably the most important aspect of estate planning for pets is to choose a guardian. This is the person or people who will care for your companion animal if you die or become incapacitated. It’s really important to talk to this person in advance and ensure that he or she is willing to take on the responsibility. You wouldn’t want to leave your sweet pet to someone who resented it or didn’t care for it properly. One approach is to create a reciprocal agreement with a friend in which you both agree to take the other’s pet should the need arise. If you don’t have an actual person in mind to become your pet’s guardian, you might want to contact the local humane society. Some of them have entire programs in place to help your pet get adopted into a good home after your death. To take advantage of these kinds of programs, you need to enroll in advance, so talk to your estate planning lawyer to find out what kinds of organizations might offer these services in Atlanta.
Paying for the Pet
As mentioned above, you may choose to leave money in a pet trust in order to care for the needs of your pet. This money would be used for food, bedding, toys, and vet services, as you estimate they would be needed for the lifespan of your animal. Some pet owners also choose to include a small stipend for the person who takes on the responsibility of caring for the animal. This is a personal decision, however, and not a necessity. Finally, make sure that your friends and family are aware of your plans for the pet. That way, the animal can get to his or her new home right away, without either being left alone or ending up in a different family than you intended. If you’d like more information on the importance of planning for your pet in the event of your death or incapacity, please ask for our pet planning brochure at GeorgiaPetTrust.com.
Most of us who have a pet consider them to be a part of the family; unfortunately, the plans we may have so carefully put together to protect our loved ones do not take our pets into consideration.
According to the ASPCA, only about 17% of dog and cat owners have taken the necessary legal steps to ensure their pets are cared for after they die. Most of us assume that because our close family members know how much our pets mean to us, someone in the family will take responsibility for our pets after we are gone. However, many pets that outlive their owners wind up in shelters because no formal provisions have been made for them.
Almost every state, including Georgia, has laws that allow pet owners to create a trust for the care of their pets. You can create a Georgia pet trust that would go into effect upon your death or if you become incapacitated and unable to care for your pet. To ensure there are proper checks and balances, you may want to consider naming one person to serve as trustee to handle the money, and another person as your pet’s caregiver, who would be responsible for the day-to-day care of your pet.
In your trust, you can detail exactly how your pet is to be treated – how many vet and groomer visits per year, what the pet should be fed, and any special medical needs that will require special attention. You will need to fund your pet trust sufficiently to cover your pet’s anticipated life span, including a cushion if your pet lives longer and needs additional medical care.
Don’t make the mistake of providing for your pet in your will since probate could tie it up for months in court, but you could make mention of the existence of your pet trust in your will.
If you would like more information about protecting your loved ones – including your pets — call our office today to schedule a time for us to sit down and talk. You can begin by calling our office today at 770-425-6060 to schedule a time for us to sit down and talk. Our Georgia Family Treasures Planning Session is worth $750 but is offered to readers of this blog for free. It is a two hour in-depth consultation with an attorney who concentrates his practice in estate planning for families with minor children. Call us today and mention this “PET CARE” article.
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No matter how much you love your pets and feel they are “part of the family,” they are generally seen as property by the Georgia probate courts, including those in Cobb County, Fulton County and other metro Atlanta probate courts and are therefore treated accordingly. This can cause some concern for pet owners who want to ensure their pets are well-cared-for and able to transition as smoothly as possible after the death or incapacitation of an owner.
One option which many Georgia pet owners are now exercising is to create a Georgia pet trust. This type of trust is used to protect the pet in case you are unable to do so. The trust will likely specify your chosen pet guardian, which can either be an individual or an organization. This entity will be responsible for taking care of the pet either until the owner is able to do so again or permanently, depending upon the situation. In the latter case, it may even be necessary for the entity to arrange to officially adopt the pet.
Guidelines When Choosing a Pet Guardian In Atlanta
For best protection, the guardian should be approached in advance to ensure he/she/it is willing and able to take on the responsibility of caring for your pet in your absence. This is not the kind of thing you want sprung on a person unexpectedly, especially when your ultimate goal is to ensure the safety and comfort of your pet.
It’s a good practice to provide the named guardian with a copy of the trust, which provides legal justification for him or her to take the pet. This can be especially important if you face an unexpected catastrophic event of some type. Police are unlikely to allow a friend or neighbor to remove your “property” from your home while you are incapacitated, which means your pet may be left in the house alone for any length of time. Having the pet trust means the guardian is permitted to take care of the pet immediately.
Funding the Pet Trust
There are some good arguments for providing at least some funding for the pet trust, either through an amount of money set aside or as a beneficiary of an insurance policy or some sort of account. It is reasonable to provide for food and veterinary costs for the expected duration of the pet’s life. Of course, the choice of whether or not to fund the trust is up to you, and many guardians are perfectly willing to take on the financial aspects of caring for your pet. If someone refuses to be your pet’s guardian unless they are given something substantial for themselves, it may be a good idea to reconsider your choice and ensure you are a choosing a pet guardian in Atlanta who truly has your beloved pet’s best interests at heart.
Many clients who seek out estate planning in Atlanta have concerns when it comes to caring for their pets. After all, our pets rely on us for everything, although we all know that we gain so much in return. When engaging in estate planning with an attorney, you likely want to ensure that your steadfast companion is well cared for after your passing.
One approach is to actually set up a Pet Trust. This type of trust is created here in Atlanta specifically to take care of your special companion animal or animals when you are no longer able to do so. When setting up a pet trust, your attorney will ask you to make a few considerations:
• Naming a trustee who will manage the funds.
• Choosing a caretaker who will meet your pet’s needs. This may be the same person or someone other than the trustee.
• Picking a nonprofit organization that will care for your pet if the caretaker is unable to do so.
• Outlining specific instructions on how your pet is to be cared for.
While it may seem appropriate to simply provide for your pet in your will, most wills and trust lawyers will encourage you to set up a separate trust. This is because the money set aside for your pet’s care could get tied up in probate. At the very least, it can take weeks for funds to become available. Setting up a Pet Trust or making it part of your Living Trust helps ensure that the money will be there right away.
You may also want to consider including instructions for pets in your Durable Power of Attorney. This allows for a designated person to take over the care of your pet if you should become unable to do so for reasons other than your own death. If it is reasonable, you can even arrange for this person to bring your pet to visit you while you are recuperating or receiving other care.
Pets in Atlanta need to have an appropriate amount earmarked for their ongoing care. In addition to providing for food and other necessities, the Pet Trust should also include funds that can be used for veterinary fees. Additionally, you may wish to allot a certain amount to the caregiver in return for looking after Fido or Fluffy. A few thousand dollars is usually enough to cover the expenses most small pets will incur.
To create a plan for your pet, simply let your Atlanta wills and trust lawyer know that it is important to you. We will help you set up a Pet Trust so that you have the comfort of knowing you will be able to continue to provide for the animal or animals that gave so much of their love and comfort to you.