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Owners die but estate plans ensure pets’ care

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LOS ANGELES — You don't have to be Leona Helmsley to want the best for your pet after you die.

Helmsley left her dog, Trouble, $12 million when she passed away in 2007. A judge cut the award to $2 million and awarded some of the money to her grandchildren, but the Maltese still lived a life of luxury until his death in December. The dog's death was announced this month by the Helmsley trust.

Pet estate planning has grown since Helmsley's will made headlines. Today, there are retirement homes for pets across the country, and at least 45 states allow for pet trusts. A pet trust is an agreement that specifies how an owner wants a pet to be cared for, including details on who will be responsible for the animal and how the care will be paid for.

There are also attorneys who specialize in pet trusts, along with how-to books like "Who Will Care When You're Not There?" by tax attorneys Robert E. Kass and Elizabeth A. Carrie, "Fat Cats and Lucky Dogs" by law professor Gerry W. Beyer and estate planner Barry Seltzer, and "Petriarch: The Complete Guide to Financial and Legal Planning for a Pet's Continued Care" by animal attorney Rachel Hirschfeld.

Miss Hirschfeld wrote a pet protection agreement that is legally binding and can be found online for as little as $39. Companies like Trusted Pet Partners, founded by attorney Chris Jones of Santa Barbara, Calif., offer a simple online pet trust for $289. Other online resources include a free planning guide from the Humane Society of the United States called "Providing for Your Pet's Future Without You" at www.humanesociety.org/petsinwills.

Exactly how many pets are abandoned after their owners die is unknown, said Richard Avanzino, former president of the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, but his best guess is 2 percent of surrendered animals, or 150,000 dogs and cats a year. A study from the late 1990s published in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science found 1 percent of dogs and 1.5 percent of cats coming into 12 animal shelters had been surrendered because of owner death.

In 1979, Mr. Avanzino went to court to prevent the euthanization of a dog whose owner, Mary Murphy, had committed suicide. Murphy left a will instructing that her 11-year-old dog, Sido, be euthanized.

"She didn't think anybody else could take care of her in the same pampered, loving way," Mr. Avanzino said.

A judge ruled disposal of personal property does not extend to killing a living creature.

"People from the grave cannot dictate the demise of their beloved pets just because they are not around to take care of them," Mr. Avanzino said.

Murphy's case prompted the San Francisco SPCA to set up one of the nation's first sanctuaries for pets who outlive their owners.

A few veterinary schools also offer estate planning options such as lifetime care for pets or placement in a home.

The Stevenson Companion Animal Life-Care Center, established by the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine, offers a place for pets to live in addition to veterinary care. The center currently houses 20 cats, 15 dogs and a llama, said Ellie Greenbaum, assistant to the director. It also has 377 animals from 20 states registered as potential residents. The fee for lifetime care is between $50,000 and $100,000 per pet, with any leftover funds donated to the center or the college.

Lifetime pet care arrangements don't always cost that much, however. Blue Bell Foundation For Cats in Laguna Beach, Calif., charges $6,500 for lifetime care for cats. The organization was founded by Bertha Gray Yergat, who wanted to ensure care after her death for the 200 cats she had rescued. Yergat left about $1 million in assets, said Susan Hamil, chairwoman of the foundation's board of directors. The organization now houses 50 cats.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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