LEGAL ADVICE—And the Pets Matter, Too!

By on November 2, 2015
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By Elizabeth Wynn

As a pet owner, you want to make sure that emergency and long-term needs of your animal companion are followed at your death or incapacitation. Unfortunately, insufficient estate planning sends estimated 100,000–500,000 pets to shelters each year when this happens. Shelter volunteers frequently encounter family members who abandon their parent’s beloved animals after they are deceased or unable to care for them.

Imagine this. Pets that have spent their entire lives sitting in a lap or sleeping in a bed are sadly and suddenly thrust into a shelter. These beloved companions can become overwhelmed and despondent very quickly.

Most people assume they will outlive their pets. This may explain why otherwise caring and loving pet parents fail to make appropriate plans for their pets. Have you considered what will happen to your pet if you are no longer in the picture?

Choosing the new caregiver is perhaps the most important and should be the first step to take. Do not assume that your child, sibling, or best friend will take your pet. You need to talk to your loved ones about this responsibility. Always make sure you have a backup plan in the event your first choice is unable or unwilling to make the commitment when the time comes.

If you can’t name a caregiver and at least one alternate, consider choosing a group of your loved ones who will be responsible for arranging for the care of your pets. If you don’t know where your pet’s forever home will be or you have to rely on your loved ones to make that decision for you, consider naming a short-term home. Name a place where your pets can go until the final decisions or arrangements for the permanent home can be made.

We provide our clients with a health document emergency card. It allows immediate access to your healthcare directives and medical information all day, everyday. This card is extremely valuable in an emergency situation if you are incapacitated and unable to communicate your wishes or concerns. It names your primary emergency contact person and telephone numbers, and lists any medical conditions or medications you are taking that may affect your emergency medical treatment. It also allows for special instructions, and many of our clients choose to give brief details about their animals. This makes everyone aware that you have pets that need to be cared for, if you are incapacitated for a short time.

Put together a packet of information that includes special or important details about each pet. Make sure this information is easily available to your loved ones upon your death or incapacitation. You should include the standard of living you want for your pet, medications and dosages, likes and dislikes, diet, and special foods or needs. I recently met with a couple with a special needs child. As part of their estate planning, they included details about the doctors who were familiar with their child’s care. Similarly, you should include the information about the vet who is familiar with your pets’ care and history.

You cannot leave assets to your pets because pets cannot own property. However, you can designate funds to provide for your pet’s future expenses and compensate the future caregiver for their services. You can plan now to ensure your pet has a good life after your death. Use your estate plan to make sure your pet is given to a caring person or organization and the new caretaker has the resources to care for him or her. The most important thing is to take the first step and develop a good plan for the continuing care of your animals.