If you die what will happen to your pet? If you don’t have a plan, you are leaving your beloved animals to the mercy of fate, and it may not be kind, says Linda Gardner, animal lover and attorney with offices at 475 Wall Street, 609-252-9667.
An estimate by 2nd Chance 4 Pets, a California animal rights organization, states that approximately 500,000 animals are orphaned each year when their owners die without a plan for their care. Many of these animals are put in a shelter, abandoned, or euthanized. While there are no numbers available on exactly what happens to orphaned animals, the Animal Legal and Historical Center, part of the Michigan State University College of Law, shows that only 12 percent of pet owners mention their pets in their will.
The stereotype of the person who sets up a trust for their pet is of the eccentric old lady with 15 cats, or the society matron with a pampered pooch wearing a pink sweater. But nothing is further from the truth, says Gardner, who believes that having a plan for your pets is really just another part of responsible pet ownership.
It’s not just dogs and cats who need protection, she adds. Birds, reptiles, horses, and other pets should be considered, particularly if they are long-lived or expensive to keep.
Working with owners to plan for the care of their pets combines two of Gardner’s lifelong interests, animals and the law. “I’ve wanted to be a lawyer since I was 12 years old,” she says. A family friend introduced her to the law and encourage her in her career. She received her bachelor’s degree from Smith College in 1980, majoring in government and astronomy. She obtained her JD from Seton Hall in 1983.
Gardner’s interest in animals is as longstanding as her interest in the law. “I guess it started with my first guinea pig and went on to the German Shepherd I had through most of my childhood,” she says. As an adult she has owned several cats. Her current pair, siblings Jackson and Katharine (named for Katharine Hepburn and like her namesake commonly called Kate), were foundlings that Gardner took in when they were five weeks old.
The pair was being cared for by a friend who was in vet school at the time. “I’d planned to only take the male cat,” she says, “but Kate climbed up in my lap and purred for me, so obviously she was going home with me, too.”
Her interest in animals and the law are not the only things that keep Gardner busy, however. She is active in Toastmasters, is current president of the Mercer County chapter of NJAWBO, is the new secretary of the Mercer County Estate Planning Council, and is also a member of two choirs. She has performed with Princeton ProMusica since 1985 and with the Princeton University Chapel Choir since 1994.
After law school Gardner was a clerk for two years in the New Jersey tax court, then moved to Princeton to work in corporate law for a local firm. She opened her own practice in the mid-1990s, where she specializes in business law, real estate, and estate planning.
“Whenever I am working on estate planning with a client I always ask them if they have pets, and if they would like to include them in their will. Most of them haven’t thought about it before,” says Gardner. But once they have they often decide to set up a care plan for them, particularly owners of larger animals, such as horses.
Choosing a caregiver. The first step in developing a care plan for your pet is to choose a caregiver. Animals need time and attention; talk with the person you have chosen and make sure that they are willing to take on the responsibility, suggests Gardner. Choose someone you trust who has experience in caring for animals, and if possible, is familiar with your pet, perhaps someone who visits you a lot or who has cared for the animal while you are on vacation.
Sometimes, particularly if a large animal, such as a horse, or if several animals are involved, you may need to appoint someone who will look after them temporarily while working to find a permanent new home for them.
Think about expenses. Let’s face it, pets cost money. Even smaller animals need food and visits to the vet for shots. What if your pet develops health problems? The person you choose to care for him needs to have the money to do it properly, that’s why leaving the caregiver a certain amount of money is often both necessary and polite.
Wills vs. trusts. In what form should you leave the money? Gardner recommends setting up a trust. “If you leave the person money in your will there is no guarantee that he or she will use that money in the way you intended,” Gardner says. “Essentially, the money is theirs to do with as they like.”
A trust helps to ensure that the money will be used for its intended purpose. Just as in setting up a trust for children, as a safeguard, Gardner also recommends putting a different person in charge of the money than the person who is actually charged with the care of the pet. “Make sure the caregiver and the person in charge of the money get along, though. They must work together,” says Gardner.
Not all states allow an animal to be listed as the beneficiary of a trust, says Gardner. However, because New Jersey follows the Unified Trust Code, it is legal here. The trust must explain how the remainder of the money will be used after the animal dies.
Get assistance. When setting up a trust or including your pet in your will, Gardner recommends checking with an attorney. “There are documents that you can find on the Internet, but each pet is different and each situation is different. You want to ensure that the document you use covers your circumstances,” she says.
As with any legal document you should make sure that the executor or trustee of your estate has copies, but in the case of animals, other documents should be left with the designated caregiver as well. Make sure he or she has copies of veterinary records as well as details of any dietary or medication needs.
Finally, the most important thing in deciding who will care for your pet is to talk with them, make sure that they are comfortable with the plan, and that they will love and care for your pet the way that you do.