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CARING FOR A PET FOR ITS LIFETIME

Owners can set up trusts to provide for their pet's future.

Last fall, Deborah Gavin-Dreschnack and her husband, Jay Dreschnack, were visiting a pet expo when they passed by a presentation by Wayne Ekren, a Port Richey estate and family attorney. Ekren was talking about pet trusts and the importance of providing for your pet after your death.

"We got to thinking, we don't have any children, we travel and do a lot of things," said Gavin-Dreschnack, 57. "If anything would happen to us, what would happen to our fur babies?"

The Brooksville couple immediately contacted Ekren and set up a $25,000 trust for their two Siberian huskies, Sadie and Nikita. The trust provides funding for a caregiver to raise the dogs in the event something happens to their owners.

Though the process is complicated and time-consuming, people have been lining up locally and nationally to secure their pets' futures, and more states have passed legislation to set guidelines for the trusts.

Protecting furry members of family

Ekren said he's drafted more than two dozen pet trusts since a Florida statute allowing them took effect Jan. 1, 2003.

After Florida implemented the legislation, about 20 states followed suit. As of January, 36 states and the District of Columbia have passed statutes allowing pet trusts, according to the Estate Planning for Pets Foundation. Statutes are pending in four other states.

Setting up a pet trust is so complex that some estate lawyers won't even draft them because they don't think it's worth the time, Ekren said.

Of course, he disagrees.

"I'm a pet lover," the 52-year-old said. "I hate to see pets that have been pampered turned over to someone who doesn't know how to take care of them."

So he encourages clients to think long and hard about whom they select to care for their pets.

The pet owner must choose a trustee to manage the funds and distribute them to the selected caregiver, who actually takes the animal. The pet owner must also choose an enforcer, someone who ensures that the trustee and caregiver are fulfilling their duties.

Selecting these three people, especially the caregiver, can get complicated. Even though pet owners can give caregivers instructions as detailed as when to give their pets a treat, Ekren said they should consider a person's household and other pets before appointing them.

Ekren named a friend as caregiver for his three Yorkies, Louie, Lola and Slick, because he didn't think they'd get along with his daughter's two boxers.

It's also a good idea to list alternates in case something happens to the first choice, he said.

And sometimes, it's hard to find a first choice. One client has expressed interest in setting up a pet trust for a python, but Ekren said they've had no luck finding a willing caregiver.

Funding is also cause for deliberation.

Ekren said it's important to consider several factors when choosing an amount, such as the pet's average life span, food and veterinary expenses and the pet's lifestyle.

He said on average, people set aside between $25,000 and $50,000, depending on how many pets they have, and $10,000 would probably be the minimum. Ekren said he set aside $30,000 for his three Yorkies.

Some set aside more. A family with several animals allocated one-third of their assets to their pet trust, Ekren said.

However, there are restrictions.

Interest the trust earns is taxed, and a court can deem the amount of money in a pet trust excessive. After the pet dies, any remaining money goes to an individual or organization of the pet owner's choice.

"It's not a tax shelter," Ekren said. "It's a way to take care of pets that you love like children."

Avoiding euthanization

Why are people going to such great lengths to protect their pets?

It's practical, said Tamara Berry, planned giving manager for the Utah-based Best Friends Animal Society. The nonprofit group works to end pet homelessness.

She said about 500,000 pets are euthanized nationwide each year because their owners have died. That's a heartbreaking statistic for pet lovers.

"I wouldn't even think of (pet trusts) as pampering," Berry said. "When you take a pet, you have the responsibility to provide for them for the rest of their lives. You make a commitment to them, and this is part of that. It's as basic as providing food and water."

Carrie Ritchie can be reached at critchie@sptimes.com.

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