“THE LEGAL CORNER”
By Sam A. Moak
Pets ARE Family
The information in this column is not intended as legal advice but to provide a general understanding of the law. Some of the information in this column was provided by the Humane Society of the United States. Any readers with a legal problem, including those whose questions are addressed here, should consult an attorney for advice on their particular circumstances.
Many of you have probably read or heard about Leona Helmsley creating a $12 million dollar trust for her pet dog. Well, right here in Huntsville, I have helped many who want to make special provisions for their pet family. A few years ago I did some research and found the Humane Society has some very good information in this area.
Pet trusts have become increasingly popular in recent years as older pet owners are looking for ways to ensure their pets will be well cared for when they’re no longer able to do the caring. Therefore, this week’s column deals with things you should know when considering your pets in estate planning.
Most wills deal with providing for loved ones upon the death of the person writing the will. However, “loved ones” usually is limited to spouses, children and other relatives. If your house is like mine, your family also includes your pets. We talk to them like family, feed them and care for them like family, and, when a pet dies, we grieve for them like family. However, when planning for the future we often overlook our furry friends.
Should an unexpected illness, accident or death occur, it is a good idea to have in mind a family friend or neighbor who is familiar with your pet that can act as an emergency caretaker. Carrying an “alert card” in your wallet that lists the names and phone numbers of your emergency pet caretakers would be a good idea, also. Post removable “in case of emergency” signs on your doors or windows telling how many and what type of pets you have. These notices will alert emergency response personnel during a fire or other home emergency.
The best way to make sure your wishes are fulfilled is to make formal arrangements that specifically cover the care of your pet. It is not enough that long ago a friend verbally promised to take care of your pet.
A Will takes effect only upon death, and may not be probated and formally recognized by a court for days or even weeks. This does not mean you should not include a provision in your Will for you pet. It just means you should explore creating additional documents that compensate for the Will’s limitations.
Unlike a Will, a trust can provide for your pet immediately and can apply not only if you die, but also if you become ill or incapacitated. When you create a trust for your pet, you set aside money to be used for its care and you specify a trustee to control the funds. However, trusts can be expensive and complicated.
A power of attorney may be more suited to your situation. Powers of attorney authorize someone else to conduct some or all of your affairs for you while you are alive. Powers of attorney have become standard planning devices. Such documents can be written to take effect after you become incapacitated. They are simpler than trusts and do not create a legal entity that needs to be maintained by formal means. Provisions can be inserted in powers of attorney authorizing your attorney-in-fact (i.e., the person designated to handle your affairs) to take care of your pets, expend money to do so, and even to place your pets with permanent caretakers if necessary.
I will not mention any names, but I have been asked in the past if a person could request a pet be euthanized after their death. A similar clause would prevent the remarriage of the surviving spouse. Thank goodness these of type provisions would probably be ruled invalid.
I would also suggest you consider The Stevenson Companion Animal Life-Care Center at Texas A & M University. Established in 1993, the Center provides a way your beloved pets can be cared for when you are no longer able. You may find more about the Center at http://vetmed.tamu.edu/stevenson-center.
While there is a plethora of information on the internet in this area, I caution you to be careful. What you find on the internet may not be valid under Texas law. Therefore, before making formal arrangements to provide for the long-term care of your pet, seek help from an attorney licensed to practice law in Texas, who can guide you in preparing the legal documents necessary to protect your interests and those of your pet.
Sam A. Moak is an attorney with the Huntsville law firm of Moak & Moak, P.C. He is licensed to practice in all fields of law by the Supreme Court of Texas, is a Member of the State Bar College, and is a member of the Real Estate, Probate and Trust Law Section of the State Bar of Texas.