All dogs may go to heaven, but what happens if their owners die before they do?
It's a question anyone with a pet should ask, experts say.
There are professionals and organizations helping animal lovers find an answer, which can include everything from setting up private pet trusts to endowing a rescue group in exchange for lifetime care.
"Typically, what happens is someone tragically passes away, or becomes incapacitated, and the family brings the animals to us because there is no one to care for them," said Rich Anderson, executive director and CEO of the Peggy Adams Animal Rescue League, Humane Society of the Palm Beaches in West Palm Beach.
The shelter started receiving calls from people "asking us if we had any kind of program that would give their pet a home," Anderson said.
That led Peggy Adams to start its Peace of Mind program in October. It guarantees, for a minimum $25,000 bequest left in a will, that the shelter will take in any animal immediately after the owner passes away.
"It's not surprising more people are trying to figure out how to ensure their animals will be afforded the same lifestyle they had before," Anderson said. "A lot has changed in the last 20 years in terms of pets and how they are seen as family."
Peace of Mind will provide routine veterinary care for the animal's life and placement with a foster family during the search for a new forever home. Pets that prove unadoptable will live out their days with a Peggy Adams volunteer, Anderson said.
Jackie Sims of Delray Beach enrolled in Peace of Mind because her son, who moves frequently for his job, is her only relative in the United States. Who would take her two beloved cats, Lexi and Kumi?
Sims was impressed by the Peggy Adams staff and their promise that both animals would go to the same adoptive home.
"It would be heartbreaking for them if they were separated," said Sims. "They're always together."
South Florida is fertile ground for lifetime pet planning because of its high number of retirees, many living alone, with no family nearby, said Deborah Goodall, a Boca Raton probate and trust attorney with the firm Goldman, Felcoski & Stone.
Goodall said Florida changed its trust code in 2006, making requirements for animal trust options clearer. Animals have limited legal rights as they are considered property by law.
The amount she places in a trust depends on an animal's age and health and the lifestyle to which the pet has become accustomed. Hotel magnate Leona Helmsley left Trouble, her white Maltese, a $12 million inheritance. After Helmsley died in 2007, Trouble was moved to Sarasota. The dog's annual living expenses reportedly were estimated at $190,000.
Owners designate in advance who will be the pet's caretaker; who will oversee the trust; how the money will be used (sometimes the caretaker draws a fee); and what will happen to any funds left after the pet dies.
Though pet trust and estate bequests usually require attorney fees, experts say there are some things forward-thinking pet owners can do that cost nothing. These include carrying a wallet card to notify emergency personnel in the event of an accident that you have unattended pets at home; creating a pet document, kept with your personal papers, that lists your pet's veterinarian and emergency caretakers; and posting a door sign stating there are pets inside your house.