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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There is no doubt we are a nation of pet lovers. Unfortunately, the Georgia law as it is currently written views pets as property, so providing for your pet in your will won’t work. So how do you protect your favorite fur-person? With a pet trust.
To create a pet trust, you should first discuss your wishes for your pet(s) with a Cobb County estate planning attorney and pet trust lawyer so your pet trust will be executed properly and will be legally enforceable after you are gone.
When planning for your Georgia pet trust, you should:
- Choose someone to act as trustee. Be sure you discuss your intentions beforehand with your potential pet trustee to ensure they are both willing and able to carry out your wishes.
- Choose a successor trustee. If your first choice for trustee is unable to act as trustee, a second person should be named as successor trustee.
- Choose caregivers. Some people elect to name a financially responsible individual as trustee and another person as caregiver for their pet(s). Be sure to specify a primary and secondary caregiver.
- Provide ID information. To help prevent fraud, you should include identification information in your pet trust, including photos of your pet(s) and microchip ID numbers.
- Give care instructions. Provide care details for your pet(s), including how often they should be taken to the vet for check-ups, nutritional requirements and any other healthcare information.
- Establish how much money is needed to care for your pet(s). You need to be realistic, because large amounts left for pets could be subject to a challenge from other heirs. Be sure to figure in the cost of trust administration as well.
- Select a beneficiary. When the last pet you have provided for in your pet trust dies, you should name the person or entity that will receive the leftover funds in the trust.
- Supply final instructions. Leave instructions for having your pet(s) buried or cremated.
If you’d like to learn more about how to provide for loved ones after you’ve gone or have other estate planning questions, call our office today to schedule a time for us to sit down and talk. We normally charge $750 for a Georgia Family Treasures Planning Session, but because this planning is so important, I’ve made space for the next five people who mention this article to have a complete planning session at no charge. Call today and mention this article.