Money hounds: Popularity of trusts for pet care growing
By LaReeca Rucker

Leona Helmsley's dog, Trouble, became a wealthy pooch last month when Helmsley, a New York City billionaire, died, leaving the dog $12 million.

Like Trouble, Mississippi heirs Beethoven, Sara Beth and Winston also are set for life. Brandon residents Lori and Bob Jackman, 69 and 66 respectively, have established a provision in their will that ensures that their pets will be provided for after the couple's death.

The three dogs won't have to worry their fuzzy little heads about who will fill their bowls with water and dog chow. Neither will cats Hershey, Gabby, Katie and Arnie, who also are protected by the claws, er ... clause.

"Because of our age, there is a very good chance they will outlive us," says Lori Jackman, referring to her pets. "We wanted to make sure they were provided for in case that happened."

Ridgeland attorney Sam Williford helped the Jackmans draft a will, setting aside $100,000 that will be used to care for the pets after the couple's death.

Sixty-three percent of American households have pets, and as many as 25 percent have included pets in their wills, The Humane Society reports.

Thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia have passed laws that enforce pet trusts.

As part of estate planning, individuals in these jurisdictions can assign a permanent guardian for their pets and make provisions for veterinary care, food, water and companionship.

David Marchetti, an attorney with the Ridgeland law firm Wells Marble & Hurst, says Mississippi is one of 11 states that has not adopted a law enforcing pet trusts, but state law does not prohibit a pet trust from being established.

"You cannot leave property to an animal because animals don't have rights to own property," Marchetti says, "but you can leave property to a trustee for the benefit of the animal."

Marchetti says the process involves creating a will with a provision that sets aside a certain amount of money for the care of the pet and names a trustee.

"It could be the same person or two different people," he says. "The person taking care of the dog could also be the trustee over the money, or you could have another trustee hold the funds and make sure the guardian is doing his job.

"That puts in a check and balance. Often a trust will result in the longest lived cat ever because someone is getting an annuity to take care of the cat."

A remainder beneficiary also should be named, so the potential remaining funds are ultimately given to a specific person or charity.

"A lot of times, The Humane Society is a good choice to have as the remainder beneficiary if there is enough money involved," Marchetti says. "If the cat dies, they get the money."

Brandon attorney Tommy Furby understands the bond. He once refused to represent a man in a divorce who was willing to give up his house and his child, but refused to part with his dog.

"I told him to come get his file," Furby says. "As much as I love dogs, I don't represent anyone whose dog is more important than his child."

Furby, who had one client who left money in a trust to ensure that his horses would be cared for, says you can't bequeath money directly to an animal, just like you can't will it to a minor. That's why people sometimes establish a trust.

"A trust account can do anything you want to do within the bounds of a law," he says. "If you want to put $100,000 into a trust account to take care of animals, you can do it."

Matt Rich, a publicist for New York City attorney Rachel Hirschfeld, who is billed as the leading pet trust attorney in the United States, says having a trust is better than simply having a will in states that enforce pet trust laws.

He says the main purpose of a will is to disperse, and it doesn't ensure that designated funds will be used for the pets' care.

For example, a person who inherits a cat and $10,000 to care for it, might choose to drop the cat off at an animal shelter, keep the money and use it to go on a shopping spree - when the cat's away, the mice will play.

"Wills also have to go through probate," Rich says. "Animals have to eat every day, and probate can take up to a year."

Madison attorney Chris Neyland says it's not uncommon for Mississippians to make provisions in their wills to care for pets.

"Parrots can live up to 80 years," he says. "There are people who have parrots who are 20 years old, and they want the parrot to be taken care of the next 60 years."

Willie Hutchinson, owner of The Snooty Pooch, a Madison store that sells pet clothing, pet fragrances, dog toenail polish, faux pearl collars, dog car seats and hosts pet birthday parties, says people treat their pets like kids these days, so it's no wonder they're getting an inheritance.

The most expensive shopping spree he's witnessed by one customer "probably totaled $1,100," he says.

According to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, American pet owners are expected to spend $40.8 billion on their pets this year, up $2.3 billion from last year. Business Week reports that $40.8 billion is more than the gross domestic product of all but 64 countries in the world. It's also double the amount of money spent on pets a decade ago.

Brandon resident Rai Frederick, 30, a chef at P. F. Chang's Chinese Bistro in Ridgeland, owns chihuahuas Neko and Kiki and four cats named Woo, Suki, Jaz and Mer-mer, who have been spoiled with perches, drinking fountains, scratchers and chew toys.

"I have thought of putting them in my will for the purpose of designating guardians," said Frederick, who is still pondering the possibility.

One thing's for sure - money isn't an object when it comes to making sure Frederick's pets are happy and healthy. Jaz, 17, has Type 2 diabetes. He gets insulin shots twice a day and has his blood sugar checked every six months.

"All of that is easily a couple thousand dollars a year," Frederick says.

Like Frederick, the Jackmans also wanted to ensure that their pets remain healthy and happy in a nation that euthanizes 3 million to 4 million dogs and cats each year.

Their will requests that the pets' new guardians find loving homes for the animals so the Jackmans will have peace of mind knowing their pets won't be abandoned like they had been in the past before the couple rescued them. The remaining funds will be donated to The Humane Society.

"There is so much abuse and neglect," Jackman says. "All of them had seen pretty horrible experiences prior to coming to live with us."

Beethoven is a deaf rescue dog, who responds to sign language. His original owners planned to shoot him shortly after he was born because they did not want to care for a dog with a physical challenge, Jackman says. Her cat, Arnie, (named after Arnold Schwarzenegger), has only one eye.

"I wanted to be sure that in the interim of finding homes for them, they would be provided for," Jackman says. "To me, all creatures are God's creatures."

E-mail LaReeca about this story
Download .pdf version