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A way to care for your pet, even after your death

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Marian Hailey-Moss has set aside $12,000 for her birds Spiffy, Winkin and Blinkin. (Ibby Caputo)

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Marian Hailey-Moss has set aside $12,000 for her birds Spiffy, Winkin and Blinkin. (Ibby Caputo)

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Marian Hailey-Moss has set aside $12,000 for her birds Spiffy, Winkin and Blinkin. (Ibby Caputo)

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Marian Hailey-Moss has set aside $12,000 for her dog, Ruffy. (Ibby Caputo)

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Marian Hailey-Moss has set aside $12,000 for her dog, Ruffy. (Ibby Caputo)

When Marian Hailey-Moss was diagnosed with breast cancer last summer, the first thing she did was set a date for her mastectomy. Then she called a lawyer to create a trust fund for her 14-year-old dog and her three birds.

"I was very scared what was going to happen to me," said Hailey-Moss, a psychotherapist in Manhattan. "I thought, who is going to take care of the animals?--because I have no family here."

Hailey-Moss, 66, is divorced and has no children, but she does have a deep love for her pets. There's Spiffy, her cockatiel, Winkin and Blinkin, her "challenged" love birds--challenged because they were born with deformed legs, not because they are not in love--and Ruffy, her terrier mix. She said that Ruffy was once so energetic, she used to have to tie the dog to the couch.

"When anybody came in she'd pull the whole sofa," Hailey-Moss said. "She's just full of life. She's slowed down a little now that she's older, but she still may outlive me, you never know."

Hailey-Moss set aside $24,000 for her pets. She named the administrator at Animal General, the veterinary clinic where she takes her pets, as both the trustee and the caretaker for the birds. Her dog walker is slated to take care of Ruffy.

In a nation that loves its pets, it is becoming increasingly common for owners to create trust funds for their animals, stipulating who should take responsibility for the pets and providing specific instructions for the care of the animals. Creating a trust fund that has an animal as the beneficiary is now legal in 39 states.

"There is a growing number of attorneys all across the country who are realizing that people have as much feeling for their pets as they do for their family members, and in some cases more," said Peggy Hoyt, a trust and estate planning attorney in Oviedo, Fla., a suburb of Orlando. Hoyt, who has three horses, five dogs and five cats, is the author of the book "All My Children Wear Fur Coats."

"If you think of an elderly person who lives alone with their cat or dog as their sole companion," she said, "then they are probably closer to that pet then they are to any other human being."

Since animals cannot speak out against abuse, neglect or the insufficient distribution of funds, Hoyt says it is crucial that pet owners carefully consider who will manage the money, who will care for the animals and who will enforce the trust. Sometimes, she said, it is a good idea to create what she calls an animal care panel, a group of people close to the pet who are charged with ensuring that decisions are made in the animal’s interest. A panel might include family members, friends and the animal's veterinarian.

"Hopefully you build in enough safeguards with the animal care panel to protect the animals," she said.

In addition, Hoyt said, instructions about how to care for the pet should be included in the trust. Hoyt recommends that her clients keep a notebook filled with all of the pet's details, including its name, age, birth date, feeding routine, likes and dislikes, and any special medical concerns.

"Kind of like if you were a parent for a child and you were going out of town for the weekend and you were leaving baby-sitting instructions, but with the mindset that you are never coming back," Hoyt said. "At least if you are leaving your kids for the weekend, you always have the opportunity to call home, but if you have died there's no opportunity."

Hoyt said that in her own trust, she left very specific provisions about how to take care of her pets, but most important to her was the stipulation that all her pets stay together.

"It's like if you had a large family of children, you don't want them farmed all over the country," she said.

The same sentiment was expressed by Jim K., a professor at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas who asked that his last name not be used because he has more pets than his local municipal code allows. In Las Vegas, unless a person has a fancier's permit, he cannot keep more than three dogs and three cats in one residence. Jim K. has two dogs, six cats and four tortoises.

"I've always been an animal person," Jim K. said "It's always just worried me to death--if I was in an accident, what is going to happen to my animals?"

After reading Peggy Hoyt's book, Jim K. decided to take out a $1 million life insurance policy so that he could set up a trust fund for his pets. But he said he didn't want his pets to hear him talk about it.

"I don't want the animals to know I'm worth more dead than I am alive," he said.

He said everything he owns will go to his pets when he dies, including his house, money, car and motorcycle. He set up an animal care panel of three people, all of whom, he said, will receive $2,000 a year for their services. Together they are responsible for paying an animal care provider to live in Jim K.'s house, pay his bills and provide for the animals.

Whatever is left when all the animals die will go to Jim K.'s nieces and nephews, but that might take a while considering that tortoises have a life expectancy of up to 150 years.

"That's what's going to screw this thing up," he said. "These tortoises, they are going to live a long time."

E-mail: eac2145@columbia.edu