Estate Planning With Your Pets In Mind

This vintage typwriter is our featured image.

Good morning, everyone! Happy Monday! Are you ready for some thought-provoking questions to start your week? Well, ready or not, here they are.

What will happen to your pet(s) if something happens to you? Who will take care of them? Where will they live? Will they end up in a familiar place with people they know? Or will they end up in a shelter, where they will be left to an uncertain fate? Have you thought about it? Do you have a plan?

You don’t? Why not? Make one. Put it in writing. Share it with your friends and family. Talk to your lawyer about it. Seriously. It’s important!

Runner-up in one of the contests at the 30th annual Puttin' on the Dog festival.
Second place? What do you mean I got second place? The indignity of it all. Puttin’ on the Dog, Greenwich CT. Photo by Alexandra Bogdanovic

Estate planning

Proper estate planning is a proactive rather than a reactive process. As such, it allows you  to  prepare for unanticipated events, instead of simply reacting to them. Specifically, it allows you to create a strategy that can be shared with your family and used in the event of a serious, catastrophic or fatal injury or illness. In other words, this is a way to ensure your wishes — including those about the care of your pet(s) — are documented and followed if/when you are no longer capable of expressing them.

The last will and testament

When most people think about estate planning, making a will is the first thing that comes to mind. This is because a valid will is a legal document required for the settlement of your affairs and distribution of your estate. Or, to put it in plain English, it is a legal document in which you specify who gets what after you die, and designate someone (called an executor) to make sure your wishes are carried out accordingly.

According to The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), you should keep a few of things in mind if you’re considering including provisions pertaining to the care of your pet(s) in your will. Specifically, you should be aware that:

  1. Your will only takes effect upon your death.
  2. It takes time to sort everything out (determine if the will is valid and so on).
  3. Other complications could arise, especially if someone decides to contest (challenge) the will.

“Even determining the rightful new owner of your pet can get delayed. In other words, it may take a long time before your instructions regarding your pet’s long-term care can be carried out,” the HSUS says. “This doesn’t necessarily mean that you should not include a provision in your will that provides for your pet. It just means that you should explore creating additional documents that compensate for the will’s limitations.”

Setting up a trust

A trust is another type of legal tool used in the estate planning process. It allows you to allocate funds for a specific purpose, such as the care of your pet, if something happens to you. It also allows you to choose someone to manage the trust.

According to the HSUS, the benefits of using a trust in addition to a will are:

  1. It ensures your pet’s immediate needs are met.
  2. It can be used while you are sill alive (in the event of illness/injury).
  3. You can decide when it goes into effect.
  4. It allows for the exclusion of some funds from probate.

“There are many types of wills and trusts,” the HSUS points out. “Determining which is best for you and your pet depends on your situation and needs.”

The organization also stresses the importance of getting proper legal advice from “an attorney who both understands your desire to provide for your pet and can help you create a will and/or trust that best provides for him.”

Because there may be different rules depending on where you live, the HSUS recommends that you and your lawyer verify that the trust established  for the benefit of your pet(s) is valid and enforceable in your state.

Power of attorney

Finally, a third type of legal document, called a power of attorney, allows someone else someone else to handle some or all of your affairs for you while you are alive. As such, they can be written to take effect upon your physical or mental incapacity and remain in effect after you become incapacitated.

They are simpler than trusts and may include provisions  allowing the person authorized to handle your affairs  “to take care of your pets, expend money to do so, and even to place your pets with permanent caregivers if appropriate.”

Short-term solutions

Of course, the strategies used in estate planning are generally devised to address future events. An HSUS fact sheet, called “Providing for Your Pet’s Future Without You,” details not only the issues we have already discussed, but other ways to ensure your pets are taken care of in an emergency.

Its recommendations include but are not limited to:

  • Identifying at least two responsible friends or relatives who agree to serve as temporary caregivers if you have an emergency. Giving them with keys to your home; feeding and care instructions; the name of your veterinarian; and information about the permanent care provisions you have made for your pet.

• Ensuring that your neighbors, friends, and relatives know how many pets you have and the names and contact numbers of the individuals who have agreed to serve as emergency caregivers. Emergency caregivers should also know how to contact each other.

• Carrying a wallet “alert card” that lists the names and phone numbers of your emergency pet caregivers.

• Posting removable “in case of emergency” notices on your doors or windows specifying how many and what types of pets you have. Doing so will let first responders know that you have pets so they can act accordingly.

• Posting a removable notice with relevant information to the inside of your front and back doors.

The HSUS fact sheet also addresses related concerns, such as the importance of making formal arrangements for your pet’s care if something happens to you; keeping in contact with the designated caregivers; entrusting your pet’s care to a specific organization; and more.

You can find the details here.

It is sad, but it is not necessarily inevitable

As a volunteer at a local animal shelter, I became aware of several cases in which dogs were surrendered because their owners could no longer care for them. In a few of those cases, I believe we had an agreement that the dog would be returned to us in such circumstances. In other cases, the animals were simply surrendered by family members who were unable to care for them and had nowhere else to turn.

In any case, it was always sad. But it does not have to be inevitable.


Disclaimer: The preceding article is intended for informational purposes only, and should not be considered as legal advice. For legal advice, including questions and concerns about estate planning; animal law; and providing for your pets in the event of illness, injury or death, consult a qualified attorney in your area.

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