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People have options if pets outlive owners

ANAMOSA (AP) — “These are my kids,” 80-year-old Atha Jensen says of a friendly but outspoken golden retriever named Daisy Mae and a personable cat named Charlie Simba.

Like many seniors, the Anamosa woman has no children to take care of her animals when she is gone. The realization that Jensen’s pets could outlive her sank in this year when she mourned the death of Tippy, another beloved cat.

“I got to thinking, ‘Here I am — 80 — I’ve got young pets,” the part-time Walmart greeter said. Jensen had Tippy’s body cremated so it could be placed in her own casket when she dies.

When friends or neighbors step up to take orphaned pets, animal welfare experts say, they don’t always realize all of the responsibilities and expenses involved. Instead of keeping the pets, they can end up putting them up for adoption or paying a shelter to take them, causing even more stress for the animals.

Several legal options exist in Iowa for ensuring the future care of pets that outlive their owners, although estate planners say it’s still rare that pet owners use them.

Pets are legally considered property, so an owner can designate a recipient in a will. It’s the most obvious solution, but it’s not without drawbacks.

For example, revising a will every time a pet is acquired or dies costs money. (To avoid that expense, D.J. Smith, a Cedar Rapids attorney specializing in probate law, said the pet owner can simply write a separate letter of instruction to the administrator of the estate on what to do with the animal.)

A will also takes time to go through probate, leaving the animal’s status uncertain during that period.

And even though the document can stipulate that a certain person receive a pet, Smith said, it cannot force that person to keep or care for the animal.

Under Iowa code, it’s possible to set up a separate taxable legal entity called a pet care trust that will distribute funds to a caregiver to pay for such needs as the animal’s food, housing and medical expenses.

Such trusts can stipulate in considerable detail how a pet should be cared for and provide the financial means to do so, said Cindy Parker, a Cedar Rapids attorney at Lynch Dallas who has created the trusts for clients.

It’s not a solution for everybody, however. Parker doesn’t recommend setting up a pet care trust with less than $25,000, because the costs to set up and administer the fund would quickly deplete a smaller amount.

The ideal solution would be to have enough in the trust to generate income for perpetual care, attorneys say.

If the pet or pets die before the trust is depleted, Smith said, he’d recommend that the remaining money be designated to go to an animal welfare organization or no-kill shelter rather than the pet’s guardian. That’s because the pet’s original owner would not want to offer any financial incentive for the guardian to cause or allow the animal to die prematurely.

Most attorneys who handle estate planning can advise on the use of such trusts, and the materials are also available in a “do-it-yourself” kit version on various websites.

There’s even a trend among humane societies to offer guaranteed pet placements for society supporters who die after making previous arrangements. Chuck Tourtillot, executive director of the Cedar Valley Humane Society, said that while he’s interested in establishing such a program, his organization needs to build a stronger adoption network before it considers that step.

But though these options may hold the most certain outcomes for pets, they are the exceptions.

“It is clearly an issue that people have to struggle with,” Smith said. “Generally speaking, they have a family member they have told and they’ve found somebody willing to take the pet.”

Characteristics of the pet often guide the decision process. Some animals simply aren’t good candidates for regular adoption by a friend or relative because they have medical conditions, challenging personalities or other special issues.

In the case of a pet owner who doesn’t have anyone to designate as a caregiver, Smith said, he frequently recommends that the will or letter of instruction specify that the pets go to a private no-kill animal shelter.

One such facility is the Iowa Parrot Rescue Center in Letts, which has received about six parrots that outlived their owners.

Rescue co-founder Mike Hutchison said pet owners should contact the shelter to find out its requirements for accepting the animal, and should also evaluate the shelter to determine if its management and finances are stable enough to be relied on in the future.

Jensen recently changed her will to rest easier about the future of Daisy Mae and Charlie Simba. She willed the animals to two fellow members in the Animal Welfare Foundation in Jones County, which helps fill the void caused by the lack of a Jones County animal shelter.

The volunteers asked nothing in return, Jensen said.

“I know they will take good care of them.”

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