Who Will Care for Your Pets
When You Cannot
We all dread—and procrastinate—making these tough plans, but it is essential if we are to ensure that our pets continue to receive the loving care to which they are accustomed, and to make any transition as smooth, painless, and stress-free as possible. It's never too soon to plan ahead, but we never know when it will be too late.
The focus here will be on the most common pets: cats and dogs. And one word will predominate over all others: trust.
Planning for Short-Term Care:
In Case of an Emergency
It is crucial that you have someone who is ready, willing, and able to come to your home on very short notice to care for your pets in the event you are suddenly hospitalized, temporarily incapacitated, or unexpectedly prevented from returning home. This "first responder" will need to be able to jump into action on a very short notice to be able to care for your pets (think: food, water, medications, potty duty, etc.) as well as provide them with some company and consolation. This person might be a neighbor, relative, or close friend.
In case your first choice is unavailable, it is a good idea to have at least one other person as a backup. This would also allow more than one person to share the duties if the need continues for more than a very short period.
Obviously, these are people you need to trust enough with both your pets and a key to your house.
Planning for Long-Term Care:
In Case of Death or Permanent Disability
The Guardian Option
Your pets thrive on your personal attention and love. They share your home and routines. So it is crucial that you make careful arrangements for their permanent care to ensure that they will be as safe, comfortable, and happy as possible in your absence.
For many people, selecting permanent guardians for their pets is the most difficult aspect of estate planning (and probably why so many of us procrastinate). It is best to name at least two guardian candidates for each pet in case your first choice is no longer able or willing to take on the responsibility when the need arises.
While everyone's situation is different, the one key factor in selecting guardians is trust. It is vital to choose people you really trust to carry out your wishes.
If you have more than one pet, carefully consider whether you should require that your pets be placed together. When pets have bonded with one another, it can be doubly devastating for them to lose not only you (and their home), but their best animal buddy as well. Even when animals don't seem particularly attached to one another, they may still find great comfort and continuity in each other's presence—and especially with the added stress of their owner's absence.
Another key factor is whether your pets will like and be able to bond with the guardians you have chosen—and vice versa. Ensuring that your pets will be comfortable with their new families will help make your pets' transitions as smooth as possible.
Once you have selected guardians for your pets, discuss your realistic expectations with these people—as well as any special needs of your pets. The prospective guardians must be comfortable undertaking the responsibilities involved. Because the guardians will have full control of your pets’ lives, you must be confident—and trust—that they will always act in your pets' best interests. It is important to maintain an open communication and good relations with your guardians so that they stay fully informed about your expectations and vice versa.
If you are unable to find someone you trust to be your pets' permanent guardian, there are two other routes to consider.
The Shelter/Rescue Option
One option is to have your pets go to a shelter or rescue in the hopes of finding another loving home. In fact, if you adopted from a shelter or rescue, chances are the adoption contract stipulates that the animal must be returned to them if you become unable to care for the animal. With shelters and rescues already overwhelmed by too many homeless animals, the last thing they really want is yours to be returned to them. However, this provision gives them the legal right to step in if the need should arise.
If you decide on a shelter for your pets, keep in mind that they are often overcrowded and understaffed. Your pets will probably be confined to kennels and—despite the shelter's best efforts—are unlikely to receive even the minimal level of care and comfort that you would expect them to have. The end result could very well be euthanasia or, in the case of a no-kill shelter, a fate even worse: a life of confinement.
While a rescue is more likely to be able to provide better care for your pets—often through foster placement—the reality is that the rescue may not be able to accommodate your pets when the time comes.
With either a shelter or a rescue, there is no assurance that your pets will ever be adopted. Any of the usual factors—age, medical condition, special needs, signs of stress, etc.—will only make adoption prospects less likely.
Depending on the particulars of your pets, caring for them indefinitely may be beyond the scope—in terms of time, space, and especially money—for most shelters and rescues. It is best to discuss this with the shelter or rescue prior to making your plans. You need to visit the shelter, and meet with key leaders of the shelter or rescue. Do your own due diligence. Once again, it is a matter of trust. If you decide to use a shelter or rescue, the least you can do is provide funds for them to help cover the costs of caring for your pets. This might best be accomplished by making a restricted gift designated solely for that use.
Some shelters are promoting so-called legacy gifts. If you donate a minimum amount per pet (for example, $10,000), the shelter will care for your pet for his or her natural life. Tread carefully here. Usually there are no guarantees that your pet will be adopted or fostered, resulting in a miserable, stress-filled life of shelter confinement. Who will monitor your pets' care? How does this care differ from that provided to any other animal left at the shelter? It may be more of fundraising ploy than a real solution to your pet planning. If you are going to trust them on this, be sure to verify thoroughly and regularly.
The Euthanasia Option
Some animals are much more likely to have trouble adjusting to a new environment. If your pets are old, in poor health, have special needs, are very shy, or dependent on you, euthanasia may be a far more humane option than making your pets endure the confusion and stress of one or more transitions. Moreover, if your pets have been with you a long time, they may worry when you are gone, not knowing if you are in trouble or will ever return.
This is all the more the case if your pets' fate takes them to a shelter or kennel environment. The traumatic change from the comfort of your real home with your full attention to the loud, crowded, and concrete and metal environment is likely to induce unbearable levels of stress. This would be comparable to you suddenly—and without any explanation—being removed from your home and family, and placed in a maximum-security prison.
If you cannot find an appropriate permanent home for your pets, the kindest course may be for a trusted family member or close friend your pets know to take your pets to a veterinarian to be euthanized. Be sure that someone you trust will witness this as it is done. This person should accompany and comfort your pets during the euthanasia. It is important for this person to remain calm and speak in a soothing voice. This can be a great comfort to your pets, especially since they will already be under a tremendous amount of stress. Remember, animals can sense fear, hesitation and apprehension in the people around them.
Be sure to communicate your feelings about euthanasia to the people you have chosen for your pets' short-term and long-term care, as well as those who will oversee your estate affairs. This is similar to us making clear to our family our own wishes, for example, to be cremated.
You may also want to specify how you would like to dispose of the bodies of your deceased pets. Perhaps you want them buried with your pervious pets in a pet cemetery, or cremated with the remains scattered in some special location or over your grave. Again, let your wishes be known to all the people who are part of this process.
Formalizing Your Long-Term Plans:
Where There's a Will, There's a Way!
To incorporate your plans for your pets into your will or trust, you should consult with an attorney. Your options will depend on the laws of your state; therefore, it is important to work with an attorney who is experienced not only in estate planning, but also in planning for companion animals. Once more, this has to be someone you can trust.
A majority of states have now passed legislation authorizing enforceable trusts for animals, commonly called "pet trusts". A pet trust is a legal arrangement that takes effect upon your death or in the event you become unable to care for your pets, and is funded with a sum of money sufficient to cover your pets' care for their lifetimes. In the trust, you name the permanent guardians and any backup guardians for your pets. You also appoint a trustee who will be responsible for making payments to your guardians from the trust as well ensuring that your pets are properly cared for. This provides an opportunity to trust, but verify.
Some specifics that you should include in a pet trust are the following (in addition to the specifics described in the next section, "Vital Information Files"):
Instructions on how regularly the trustee should check on the pets
Another option is to bequeath your pets directly to the permanent guardians along with a specific sum of money for your pets' care.
Also, you can bequeath a sum of money to the permanent guardians on the condition that they take your pets into their homes and that the money is spent for your pets' care.
You may also want to consider empowering the executor of your will (or trustee of your trust) with the authority to decide whether the named guardians will provide appropriate homes for your pets, and, if not, to place your pets with your backup guardians.
Regardless of which option you choose, you should give as much detail as possible in your instructions for your pets' care.
You may also wish to consider asking your attorney to word your legal documents so as to limit the powers or increase the responsibility of your pets’ guardians. Here are some examples:
State any other stipulations clearly and succinctly in order to ensure that your pets continue to enjoy the life you want for them. You want to avoid having others try to second-guess exactly what you would have wanted them to do.
Because there is money involved with most of the choices, there is always the risk of misuse of funds intended for your pets and those caring for them. This is where trust is so very important. For example, guardians may choose to keep pets alive longer than you would have chosen in order keep accessing funds, or just the opposite, if any remaining funds go to the guardians once the pets are deceased.
There is a fine balancing act required in all of this between being very specific and yet still providing enough flexibility to meet the inevitably unanticipated.
Vital Information Files:
Who Needs to Know What
It is crucial to maintain files with current information about each of your pets and the arrangements you made for their care—both short-term and long-term. This information should also be shared with your pets’ temporary caregivers and permanent guardians.
At a minimum, keep a current list of people who should be contacted in the event of an emergency, along with the following:
Revisit this information at least twice a year in order to keep it as accurate as possible. Be sure to inform your temporary caregivers and permanent guardians of any changes.
It is a good idea to keep critical information and a description of where more detailed files can be found in your purse or wallet.
You should also place a sign in a highly visible location in your home indicating the number of pets in your household and any other vital information about them.
You should maintain a list of your pets' permanent guardians and give a copy of that list to the person in charge of your estate affairs.
The Companion Animal Planning Packet
A free Companion Animal Planning Packet is available from PETA. It contains a 12-page booklet as well as these helpful items:
To get your free packet mailed to you, go to PETA's "Planning for your Beloved Companion Animals" webpage.