Estate planning for pets becomes serious business.

Have you added Fifi or Fido to your client's estate plan checklist? Animal lovers are howling to find out.

"A lot of people don't plan for it, and their pets are put to sleep," warns Brett Marley, a trust and estate attorney with Holland & Knight, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Many people treat their pets better than they do other people.

So while the idea of a pet trust might sound foolish and frivolous, it is serious business.

Marley, for example, recently arranged for a client to put nearly $1 million into a foundation-preserved for her pet's life. When the pet dies, the remainder goes to charity. Florida is believed to be the 18th state to legalize pet trusts via a new law slated to take effect January 1, 2003.

Marley is preparing client wills to accommodate the law, with trusts to be established when the law takes affect. So far, he says, $100,000 is a fairly common amount that clients are setting aside for pet trusts.

Pet trust laws already exist in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, New Mexico, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Tennessee, Washington, Wisconsin and Utah. However, state laws differ.

There are 58 million households in the United States that care for pets. Without a pet trust, all your client may do is designate a caretaker for his or her pet.

"In states that don't specifically have pet trust laws, it's considered an honorary kind of thing," explains Nina P. Berkheimer, director of estate planning at the SPCA of Pinellas County in Largo, Fla. This means you have to find a person, and give that person the pet and the money to take care of it. "If they throw the pet out on the street, there's nothing to stop them. The pet trust law gives the opportunity to actually make this enforceable by a court of law."

Pet estates can add up to some pretty big bucks. Tobacco heiress Doris Duke left $100,000 in trust for pets. Betty White, Dusty Springfield and Oprah Winfrey are among the celebrity pet owners reported to have included pets in their wills and estates.

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