By Dr. Becker
This isn't a happy subject, but it's an important one – planning for your pet's future after you're gone, or in the event you can no longer care for her. You certainly don't want her to become one of the estimated half-million dogs and cats euthanized each year after their owners die having made no arrangements for them.
Deciding Who Will Care for Your Pet
The first and most important step in planning for your pet's future care is to decide who will become his next guardian. You may already have a person in mind – someone with whom you have a mutual agreement to step in to care for family pets should it become necessary.
However, for most of us this is a subject that requires careful consideration. Sometimes the people closest to us — typically family members or dear friends – aren't the best choice when it comes to taking on the responsibility of pet ownership.
I recommend thinking first about the specifics of how you want your pet to be cared for after you're gone, and then think about who would be most willing and able to provide that level of care. Some people may not have the time to properly care for a pet. Some may be busy with careers, child rearing, etc.
And what if you want your furry best friend to continue eating a raw diet or receiving chiropractic care. Does the caretaker you have in mind share your overall pet care philosophy?
Be clear with prospective guardians about your expectations and the amount of time, effort, and money that will be required to care for your pet – especially if the person you have in mind has never been a pet owner.
The goal is to avoid surprising a family member or friend with pet guardianship, either because you haven't spoken with them about it, or haven't outlined what it will entail. If your pet goes to someone who isn't prepared or becomes overwhelmed by the responsibility of it all, he or she could end up relinquishing your beloved companion to an animal shelter.
When you decide on your pet's next guardian, it's a very good idea to arrange for a backup caretaker in case your first choice is unable to take your pet when the time comes.
You and your caretaker(s) should discuss your plans at length, and it's a very good idea to have the future owner's name, contact information, and your pet's care plan in writing. Make sure copies of this information are with the caretaker, close family members, regular visitors to your home, and any neighbors you're friendly with. It's also a good idea to leave a copy of the document in a conspicuous spot in your home.
What If I Don't Know Anyone Who Can Care for My Pet?
If there is no one you feel would be appropriate to care for your pet, there are fostering options that may be available to provide a temporary home until a new owner can be found. These include:
- The breeder or shelter you bought or adopted your pet from
- A breed or other rescue organization
- Your local animal shelter
- Your veterinarian
- Your dog walker, pet sitter, or groomer
You'll need to make arrangements ahead of time with one or more of these individuals or organizations to take charge of your pet when the time comes, and a method for notifying them immediately.
Making Things Legal
If you neglect to assign ownership of your pet in your will or a trust, your four-legged family member will automatically go to your residuary beneficiary (the person or persons who'll receive everything not assigned in your final legal documents). If you have no will or trust when you die, your pet will go to your next of kin.
When you adopted or purchased your pet, did you sign a contract agreeing to return the animal to the breeder, shelter, or some other entity in the event you can no longer keep your pet? If so, it's a good idea to attach those documents to your will or trust and give a copy to your assigned pet caretaker as well so everyone who may need the information has it.
Your will or testament is one tool you can use to legally arrange for the care of your companion animal in the event of your death. One or more people who agree to take responsibility for your pet are named in the document, along with any assets you want to leave to that person to help with expenses.
Another option is to leave your pet with one person and the money with another person, with instructions for reimbursing the new owner for pet-related expenses.
Unfortunately, wills are not handled immediately upon a person's death, and settlements can sometimes be dragged out for years. In addition, specific instructions for a pet's care contained in a will are not enforceable, nor does a will allow for disbursement of monies over the remaining lifetime of the animal.
So including pet care in your will is only a first step. You'll also need a legal document called a pet trust.
Setting Up a Pet Trust
There are different types of pet trusts. A traditional pet trust, which is legal in all 50 states in the US, gives you a great deal of control of your pet's care after your death. You can stipulate, for example:
- The trustee, which is the person who will handle the finances for your pet
- The new owner (caretaker/beneficiary)
- What expenses the trustee will reimburse to the caretaker
- The type of care your pet will receive
- What will happen in the event the caretaker you specify can no longer keep the animal
Another type of trust is called a statutory or honorary pet trust, which is in effect while you're alive as well as upon your death. This type of trust controls how monies are disbursed, including prior to your death if you choose.
A statutory trust provides more flexibility than a traditional trust and is the simplest to do, especially if you already know who your pet's caretaker will be after your death, and that person is aware of and agrees with your wishes. Only a handful of states do not recognize the statutory pet trust.
A third type of trust is a revocable living trust, which avoids probate after your death. The benefit of this type of trust is it can eliminate the majority of disputes and challenges to a standard will.
Despite the sad nature of this undertaking, it's actually not difficult to provide for your pet should you precede her in death or become unable to care for her. And pet guardians who set things up ahead of time rest easy knowing their beloved animal companion will be well cared for after they're gone.