Plan ahead: What will happen to your pet when you die?

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

pet trust

Story at-a-glance -

  • An estimated 500,000 dogs and cats wind up in shelters each year because their owner can no longer care for them and have made no provisions for them
  • It’s important to plan for your animal companion’s future care in the event you no longer can
  • A very important decision you’ll need to make involves choosing a new guardian for your pet
  • It’s also important to make your future pet care wishes legal with a pet trust that includes financial arrangements

The thought of losing an animal companion to death is so difficult for most of us to contemplate that we push it from our minds as quickly as possible. But there’s another aspect of life with pets we rarely even consider: What if they lose us? What if you leave the house tomorrow and never return? What happens to your furry family member then?

For an estimated half million dogs and cats left behind each year after their owners pass away with no provisions made for them, the answer is relinquishment to an animal shelter, where they may or may not find a new family to love them.

The good news is that while this topic is heart-wrenching to think about, it’s actually not complicated to make arrangements for your pet in the event you’re no longer able to care for him. And imagine the peace of mind you’ll have if you’ve made all the necessary arrangements ahead of time.

Choosing your replacement

The first and most important step in planning for your pet's care when you’re gone is choosing who will become her next guardian. You may already have a person in mind and a mutual agreement to step in to care for family pets should it become necessary. For many of us, however, this is a subject that requires a long, hard look. Sometimes the people closest to us — typically family members or friends — aren’t the best choice to shoulder the responsibility of pet ownership.

It’s important to give some thought to 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 offer that level of care. Some on your short list may not have the time to properly care for a pet. Others may be busy with careers, raising children, etc.

What if you want your dog or cat to continue eating a home-prepared diet or receiving rehabilitation therapy? Does the person you have in mind share your general 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. If at all possible, you want 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 work and time involved, 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 also a very good idea to line up an alternate caretaker as well, in case your first choice is unable to take your pet when the time comes.

You and your caretaker(s) should discuss your plans in detail, and it's best 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, especially if you live alone.

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Alternatives to consider

If there is no one in your life you feel would be suitable 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. Another option, depending on your financial situation, might be a sanctuary, “retirement home” or rescue organization for pets whose owners can no longer care for them.

Shortcomings of wills and testaments in providing for your pet

If you fail to assign ownership of your pet in your will or a trust, your animal companion 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 him or her? 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 pet 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 drag on 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.

Why you also need a pet trust

Including pet care in your will is just the first step. You'll also need a legal document called a pet trust. There are different types of pet trusts. A traditional pet trust, which is legal in all 50 states in the U.S., gives you a great deal of control of your pet's care after your death. You can stipulate, for example:

  • The new owner (caretaker/beneficiary)
  • The type of care your pet will receive
  • The trustee, which is the person who will handle the finances for your pet
  • What expenses the trustee will reimburse to the caretaker
  • 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, which is also recognized in all 50 states, 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.

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.

Funding your pet’s future care

You can use cash, life insurance, stocks, bonds, annuities and assets like your home or car to provide funding for your pet, and there are various ways to make the funds accessible to your pet’s caretaker after your death. For example, if you have a living trust, you can transfer cash or other assets into it yourself. You can also name your trust as beneficiary of your life insurance policy.

I recommend you talk with an attorney or other qualified professional about how to fund your pet’s financial future and the proper way to go about it based on your individual financial situation. For more information and tools to help you plan for lifetime care for your pet, visit 2nd Chance 4 Pets.

Despite the sad nature of this task, as you can see, it's really 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.

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