With an estimated 71.4 million U.S. households home to at least one bird, fish, reptile, cat, dog or bunny, pets are definitely our beloved companions in life. But what happens to them after we're gone?
Some wind up in animal shelters, some are put to sleep. Others are farmed out to willing family or friends.
But to ensure there's no uncertainty, it appears more Americans are specifying exactly what happens to Fido and Fluffy when they're gone. That arrangement can be as casual as a friendly agreement with a grown child, a sibling or friend, or as concrete as a legally drafted trust.
"It's definitely a trend and it's caught on because people understandably value their animals and want to make sure their pets are looked after," said Mary Randolph, publisher of Berkeley, Calif.-based Nolo publishing and author of Every Dog's Legal Guide: A Must-Have Book for Your Owner.
Some 43 states and the District of Columbia now have pet-trust laws on the books, according to attorney Dan Meeks, who runs a Florida website, www.pettrust lawblog.com.
He said there has been increasing interest in pet trusts, partly due to several "outlandish" pet-care cases, such as the $12 million trust fund left by real estate mogul Leona Helmsley to care for her Maltese poodle (later reduced to $2 million in court). Or Florida heiress Gail Posner, who died in March, leaving her $8.3 million Miami mansion and more than $3 million for the care of Conchita, her pampered chihuahua, and two other dogs.
How to prepare for your pets' lives after you're gone? Here are some choices:
The simplest and least costly way is an informal arrangement, asking a trusted friend, neighbor or family member to assume care of your pet should something happen to you.
"Make sure the person is willing and able to take your animal, both financially and (life) circumstances," said Randolph.
And because the average dog or cat costs an estimated $1,000 a year in food and vet bills, it's a good idea to provide some financial help, ideally in either a will or a trust.
For people who don't have a specific person in mind as their pet caretaker, many animal shelters and organizations like SPCA have "guardian care" programs.
"Some people simply ask that we find a good, permanent adoptive home for their animal after they're gone," said Steve Potter, development director for the Sacramento, Calif., SPCA. "Some are more specific, like Fluffy doesn't go to a home with children or to a home with other pets."
If you want more assurance and supervision over Fluffy's long-term care, consider a pet trust, which names a trustee to ensure your wishes are carried out.
A pet trust can cost $750 to $2,500, depending on whether it's part of a new living trust or added to an existing estate plan.
More elaborate choices are available. The TLC for Pets Program at the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine, for instance, allows dog and cat owners to provide for their pet's lifetime care, including an adoptive home and veterinary care, including surgeries.
That TLC is not cheap. For dogs, the tax-deductible UCD gift is $50,000; for cats, it's $30,000. There's also a $1,500 enrollment fee that covers an initial in-home visit to meet the pet and assess its health and home environment.
Celeste Borelli, TLC coordinator, said the price sounds steep but noted that surgical bills and cancer treatments can be costly for aging pets. At the end of the pet's life, any unused funds remain in the TLC program, part of UCD's Center for Companion Animal Health.