In today’s culture, we don’t like to talk about death. Our sanitized view of life in eternal youth leads to a number of problems, including lack of planning for the inevitable. What will happen to your loved ones, your property, and your pets after you die? The answers may surprise you.
Too many people assume that if anything happened to them, their family would take good care of their pets, but this is sadly not often the case. Many pets who have lost their owners go to an uncertain fate in animal shelters. The lucky ones are picked up by animal control right away because neighbors or family members report the death. In other cases, animals are trapped alone in the home with their deceased owner for days or weeks. Sometimes the next of kin takes custody after the death, or before, and drops the pet off at the nearest animal shelter without another thought. The only way to prevent this tragic fate for your beloved animal companions is to make a plan and get it in writing through a legal process.
A little history
Many years ago, I worked in a high-volume open-admission animal shelter. There was no intake management or surrender counseling in those days, so anyone could drop off an animal at any time. One day I helped a black man – you’ll understand my reason for describing his appearance in a moment – surrender a small white Poodle. The man explained that his elderly father was doing poorly and had to go into a care home, and he was taking care of all his business. Dad couldn’t bring the dog to the facility and he couldn’t keep it, so here he was. We did some paperwork, collected the surrender fee, and took the dog.
A few days later, I was helping another customer when I noticed the door being held open for an elderly, frail black man. My heart sank when I saw him. The old man was helped to the counter by an assistant, and he proceeded to explain the reason for his visit. He had recently moved into a care home and was unable to take his little white dog with him. When he asked his son about the dog, he was told he had been brought to the shelter. He said in a shaky voice, “I just want to see my little dog one more time.”
My coworker and I exchanged a glance. Without saying a word, we knew we would never tell him what really happened. His little dog, like so many others, had been euthanized shortly after the surrender, probably for “space.” Buying time, my coworker showed him and his assistant to the kennels to look around. When of course they didn’t see him, she said he must have been adopted already. 20 years later my coworker and I were reconnected thanks to Facebook. She remembered this incident as clearly as I did, and we wept all over again for the old man who was surely reunited with his little dog not too long after his visit to the shelter.
How to protect your beloved companions from an uncertain fate: The 7 Steps
1) Start talking about it. Have the conversation with your partner, adult children, friends, anyone in your close circle who you trust. Ask who would be able and willing to help care for your pets should something happen, and encourage honesty. Being polite doesn’t help when the day comes and that person really isn’t able to take care of a pet. Become comfortable talking about this subject, and encourage that comfort in others. Much heartache, misunderstanding, and expense can be avoided with communication and planning.
2) Find a caregiver. This can be tricky, and may change over time as people come and go from your life, their situation changes, or they pass away before you do. The most important thing is to select someone you can trust to care for your pets. Let’s face it, when you’re gone, you won’t have any control over what happens, and no paperwork can ensure that things go as you planned. However, if you trust your caregiver, you know they will keep and care for your pets as if they were their own, or if they are unable to keep them, they will take the time to find good homes and not just drop them off at the shelter.
The caregiver can be an individual or an organization. If you are unable to find someone suitable in your own circle, you may consider looking outside. Some humane societies, sanctuaries, and rescues have pet guardianship programs that ensure perpetual care or placement for your pets in the event of your death in exchange for a monetary donation to cover the costs. Again, it is of utmost importance to find someone – in this case, an organization – that you can trust, as this type of arrangement can go very well or very badly.
In one example, a shelter in my area with such a program placed two old dogs in a home and provided for their care for the rest of their lives. They even paid for pet sitting, which is how I got to know the dogs and learn about the situation. The dogs were in a loving, comfortable home with everything provided until their eventual deaths. In another example, a different shelter was the recipient of a donor’s entire estate including her money, houses, and cats. Instead of going into homes, the cats were housed in rooms at the shelter for years. Clearly, this was not what their late owner had in mind. Fortunately, the last few surviving cats were finally adopted by the staff who had been caring for them.
3) Consider your options. As mentioned in this website’s disclaimer, I am not a lawyer and am not providing legal advice. My goal is to create awareness of important issues and to encourage you to do research, educate yourself, then seek legal counsel once you have identified your particular needs. This estate planning process can be simple or complicated depending on your personal situation. If you have a spouse, children or other dependents, if you own property or a business, if you have debt, and many other factors must be taken into consideration. An attorney experienced in estate planning can help you sort it all out. I recommend starting your research with Nolo, a provider of self-help and DIY legal guides and forms including wills. They also have a free library of legal articles and an attorney finder to help connect you with a licensed professional in your area.
4) Draw up a will. A will can accomplish many things, especially in regard to property. Like it or not, pets are considered property by law. This is actually a good thing, as it protects them from being stolen or given away without due process. My will is simple. Whoever gets my house and money also gets my pets. All is left to someone I trust to provide care for them in the event of my death. In your will you can leave your property to one or more individuals or organizations, and you can name an individual to be the caregiver for your pets. Check out the info on Nolo then talk with an attorney in your area to determine the best setup for you. If you have assets, consider leaving them to the caregiver to cover costs of care. Food, supplies, and health care can add up, especially as pets age. Even routine procedures like dental cleaning can be quite expensive. If you don’t have assets or have debt to cover, consider number five.
5) Buy life insurance. There is a dizzying array of options for life insurance, so talk with an insurance agent in your area. The company that provides your auto or homeowner’s policies probably provides life insurance as well. Your employer may also provide it, so explore all your options before making a decision. Life insurance will provide a sum of money to the beneficiary upon your death. This can help to cover your debts including credit cards, loans, or mortgage. It will also provide funds to pay for the perpetual care of your pets by the beneficiary. Talk to your broker about your plans and concerns to make sure you have adequate coverage.
6) Consider a trust. In the US and many other countries, you cannot leave your estate to an animal; however, you can leave assets to a person or organization in exchange for care of your pets (or children, or other dependents). Funds are administered and released by the trustee who may be an individual or, more commonly, a financial institution. Under a trust, your caregiver (trustor) is required to follow specific instructions on the pets’ care in order to continue receiving the funds. When the pet dies, any remaining funds are given to the designated beneficiary. Trust laws vary from state to state, so be sure to do your research and meet with a professional financial advisor to discuss this option.
7) Assign a power of attorney. A power of attorney is another option you can set up while you are alive. This person is entrusted with making decisions, handling your finances, signing documents, and other responsibilities for you in the event you are unable to. This may seem unnecessary if you are young and healthy, but consider what would happen if you were in a car accident or some other situation rendering you unable to manage your own affairs. While the paperwork to assign power of attorney can be done without a lawyer, it is a good idea to seek legal counsel before making such an arrangement.
I hope this information helps you to take action to protect the future of your pets. Are you a pet care professional? Don’t miss the next article on special considerations in estate planning for pet sitters!