If Not You, Who Will Take Care of Your Pet?
Most people treat their pets like family members, but when a pet owner dies, or even becomes temporarily disabled or absent, what happens to Fido and Kitty?
Unfortunately, pets are often overlooked in the days following health emergencies as well as after an accident or death. Pets waiting at home may end up being unintentionally neglected. In lieu of someone coming forward to care for them, they may be taken to a shelter and even euthanized. The Humane Society estimates that over 100,000 pets end up in shelters each year after their owners die or become incapacitated.
Provide a neighbor or nearby family member with a key to your home and instructions relating to your pet or pets. Provide family with your pet care designee’s contact information Should you have an emergency, family members can notify them. Instructions should include all of the pet’s daily care and health information, including the vet’s name. Carry a wallet “alert card” that lists the name and contact information of your emergency caregiver.
Ask your emergency caregiver to check in on your pet in case of a fire or natural disaster. Have an emergency sticker at your front door alerting firefighters to the existence of your pets and provide the pet caregiver’s contact information on the sticker.
Should you die without having done any planning relating to your pet, a family member may take your pet in, but it isn’t guaranteed. A pet is considered part of estate property so would be “disposed of” when the estate is settled, which can take a long time in some cases. There is no automatic “temporary” care set up for pets during an estate’s probate.
You really need to establish a permanent care solution for your pets. Here are four approaches, outlined in order of complexity, level of protection, and cost.
Letter of Instruction: The easiest thing to do, that costs nothing, is to designate a caregiver and leave instructions documenting your pet’s care requirements. It should be someone who has agreed to do it and understands the potential costs involved. This likely will be someone other than your neighbor/emergency coverage as it requires a permanent commitment of ongoing care. This is not a legal document unless it is included as part of a will, so it is a good idea to name successive caregivers in case the initial person can’t or won’t do it when the time comes.
Add as a Provision to a Will: You can’t leave your pet money in a will, as a pet is considered property. You can leave a “Letter of Instruction” as part of a will, and leave money to a designated pet caregiver. However, there isn’t any requirement or oversight as to how that person spends the funds, nor is there a way to redirect the funds should the person decline on caring for the pet. (He or she would still get the money!) As already mentioned, another issue with a will is that it doesn’t take effect until the estate is closed out. Wills also don’t provide care for your pet while you are still living, even if you are incapacitated. A lawyer must be consulted to modify your will.
Pet Protection Agreement: The ASPCA endorses Legalzoom.com as one of several “do it yourself” options that can cost as little as $39. These provide an online form to fill out, creating a legal agreement without the need for an attorney. The agreement, or a pet trust, can provide care for a pet, even if you are still living, through designation of a limited durable Power of Attorney. The Legalzoom option allows you to designate a caregiver and backup, and provides the ability to designate funds and a funds-manager, although funding is not a requirement. Your designee must sign the agreement.
Standalone Pet Trust: The most formal and costly approach is to create a pet trust. This option is best if you are leaving substantial funds for your pet’s care or if there may be family disputes relating to those funds. There is strict financial oversight, with the funds held in the trust and managed by a 3rd party. Multiple pets and even multiple caregivers (should the pets be going to different people) can be covered and care instructions can be very detailed. Not all states allow pets trusts and you need to hire an estate planning attorney. The cost to set up a pet trust will vary, but expect a minimum of $500; more depending on complexity.
At a minimum, set-up an emergency and permanent pet care plan using a Letter of Instruction. Don’t leave your pets sitting at home wondering when someone will show up to care for them.