By ELIZABETH L. WYNN
Don’t Forget Man’s Best Friend
As a pet owner, you want to make sure that the emergency and long-term needs of your animal companion are met at your death or if you become incapacitated. Unfortunately, insufficient estate planning sends an estimated 100,000–500,000 pets to shelters each year for these reasons. According to a shelter volunteer, they frequently see people who give their parents’ animals to shelters after mom and dad’s deaths. 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.
Most people assume they will outlive their animals, which may explain why otherwise very attentive 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 just assume that your child or sibling or best friend will take your pet. You need to talk to your loved ones about this responsibility, and 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 alternative, consider choosing a group of your loved ones who will be responsible for arranging for the care of your pets. Whether you 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, a place where the 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. This card allows immediate access to your healthcare directives and medical information all day, every day. This card is extremely valuable in an emergency situation if you are incapacitated and unable to communicate your wishes or concerns. This card names your primary emergency contact person and her telephone numbers, 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 including 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 he may be on, likes and dislikes, diet, special foods or needs he may have. I recently met with a couple that had 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 of 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.
Elizabeth Wynn is a member of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and practices law in Ridgeland. She and her family live in Madison.