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Set up a pet trust for continual care

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A dear friend of mine called me up the other day and said she didn't know what to do about her dog. Only her problem had nothing to do with the pooch threatening the mailman, excavating the yard or enjoying the neighbor's petunias for his midday snack.

"I have three choices," she said. "The breeder. My best friend. Or you."

She was talking about to whom she would entrust the responsibility of the continual care and feeding of her dog should something happen to her.

"The breeder might be fine, but he also might sell her. My best friend is great, but a little flaky. And then there's you."

"I'd be honored," I said, happy to be able to put her mind at ease, happy she asked me because I love her dog, and not a little proud of my good friend.

I've always found it distressing that people take great pains to delineate who gets what right down to the cuckoo clock, but altogether forget about the family pet. In the United States, half a million pets are euthanized every year simply because their owners did not appropriately plan for them. And then there are those owners whose plans are far from appropriate.

The San Francisco SPCA's Sido program is named for a collie-sheltie mix that was sentenced to death in her owner's last will and testament. Sido's owner committed suicide in 1979 and, as a part of her will, decreed that Sido be put to sleep. Well, the good people of the San Francisco SPCA were having none of that.

According to a 2006 article in the San Francisco Chronicle, "Richard Avanzino, San Francisco SPCA president at the time, took custody of Sido and said he would defend the dog's life 'even if I have to go to jail."'

As it goes, no jail time was necessary: A probate court judge denied the woman's final wishes, and then-San Francisco Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill into law protecting man's best friend from his sketchier human companions.

Katy Volz, coordinator of the Sido program, summed it up for the Chronicle this way, "Apparently, this woman believed that no one could possibly love or take care of her dog the way she could. Well, it turned out there were plenty of people here at the SPCA who believed they could."

Today, for those who prefer to use their wills for good rather than evil, there is the pet trust.

Pet trusts first became legal options in 1990 and were recently brought into the limelight when hotel magnate Leona Helmsley died last year and left $12 million to her dog, Trouble.

Excessive? Yes. But at least Trouble was taken care of. Shelters in this country are crowded enough with intentionally abandoned animals. When a pet ends up in a shelter simply because no other plan was put in place, it does a disservice to the pet and to the animals that had no other options.

Statutory pet trusts, now legal in 38 states, are by far less expensive than traditional legal trusts. As executive editor of Consumer Reports Greg Daugherty told USA Today, "In states that allow statutory pet trusts, you can create one by adding a few lines to your will, instead of setting up a separate trust. You can set up a statutory pet trust for as little as $100, in addition to the cost of your will."

For many, the care and continual feeding of their pet after they are gone is determined by the old-school nod and a handshake. This is sometimes sufficient, but many times not.

While most of us probably know at least one person who could love and care for our pet if we were no longer around to do so, there is no guarantee that person will be around for the duration of your pet's life, and no guarantee they will make good on that nod and handshake. Circumstances change.

Programs like Sido can help. For a suggested annual donation of $25, Bay Area pet owners can sign up their dog or cat. Pets must qualify by way of behavior and health checks, and are limited to two per household. For details, please visit www.sfspca.org.

For options, check out PetGuardian.com, which operates in association with Best Friends Animal Society, one of the nation's largest no-kill animal sanctuaries, located in southern Utah.

For more information on pet trusts and how to establish one, get in touch with your local SPCA, or visit peaceofmindpettrust.com for options and information.


Dog trainer Matthew "Uncle Matty" Margolis is co-author of 18 books about dogs and host of the PBS series "WOOF! It's a Dog's Life!" Send your questions to dearuncle.gazette@unclematty.com or by mail to Uncle Matty at P.O. Box 3300, Diamond Springs, CA 95619.

© Creators Syndicate Inc.