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pets and money

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Treated like members of the family, pets are increasingly included in their owners' wills - often much to the dismay of human relatives who find themselves snubbed in favour of the deceased's four-legged best friend.

Recently, heiress Gail Posner left a $3-million (all figures U.S.) trust fund and her $8.3-million Miami Beach mansion to her three dogs, Conchita, April Maria and Lucia. (She also left $27-million to her maids, bodyguards and personal trainer.) Her only child, who received $1-million, is challenging the will in court.

While eccentric millionaires go to extremes, making sure your pets are cared for after you die is becoming more common.

Toronto estate lawyer Barry Seltzer, author of the new book Fat Cats and Lucky Dogs: How to leave (some of) your estate to your pets, says that at least a third of his clients who have pets ask for provisions for the animals in their wills. Canadian law prohibits leaving money directly to animals, but Seltzer says there are other ways to ensure Fluffy and Fido will live the good life after you've gone to that big dog park in the sky.

Question: When it comes to a dollar amount, how do you figure out how much your pet will need? (Assuming you don't want to leave your WHOLE estate to the pet!)

Barry Seltzer: While there is no magic formula for establishing exactly how much your pet will need over the remainder of its life, here are some things to consider:

• the number of years you estimate your pet will live;

• the cost of food per year;

• the cost of routine vet bills per year for checkups and shots;

• the cost of special medical attention your pet needs on a regular basis (for example, a friend's dog requires antihistamines, steroids and liver oils for about six weeks every summer to counter a pollen allergy);

• the cost of special needs, such as boarding, grooming and exercise for a horse;

• the cost of boarding your pet if the caregiver has to go out of town on business trips or vacation, and the cost of providing for an animal sitter if your caregiver has to work long hours away from home;

• the maximum amount of money you are willing to devote to the pet's future care;

• any compensation you consider appropriate for the caregiver's time;

• how the amount you leave for your pet's care will affect your family members and what they may do if they think it is excessive;

• any unforeseen catastrophic events that might affect your pet, such as the need for an expensive operation; and

• the possible effects of inflation, if your pet lives for more than a few years.

Write down all of the expenses associated with your pet for a year and calculate how much money would be required, based on the number of years you expect it to live. Appendix E of 'Fat Cats and Lucky Dogs - Leaving (some of) Your Estate to Your Pet' lists the average lifespan of many types of animals kept as pets.

Once you have determined the amount of money you would like to leave, based on your pet's needs and your ability to pay, discuss the matter with your caregiver to ensure you are both satisfied that it will be enough to care for your pet without burdening the caregiver.

One more point to consider. You can qualify the amount of money you want to leave to the caregiver based on the number of years left on your pet's estimated lifespan when you die. Or, from time to time, you can adjust the amount given in your will.

Let's say your dog is five years old and, given its size and breed, you believe it could live for another 10 years. You estimate that it costs $500 a year to maintain your dog. You could state in your will that, should you die in the year you made your will, you bequeath $5,000 for the care of your pet, given that it could live another decade at $500 a year. Should you die a year later, the caregiver would receive only $4,500 because your pet could expect only another nine years of life. Should you die in year nine, the amount the caregiver would receive would be $500 to cover the last expected year of your pet's life.

You should also take into consideration that, as your dog ages, its medical bills may increase, just as they generally do for humans, so the $500 a year maintenance may be more like $700 in the last years of life. You might also make any necessary adjustments for the effects of inflation over the number of years you expect the pet to live. (The amounts given are examples, not suggestions.)