What if a pet outlives you?
Ensuring pet owners' peace of mind
Pets usually have shorter life spans than humans, but what if a pet owner becomes ill, incapacitated or dies first? Animals who outlive their owners face uncertain fates. Under the best circumstances, a family member or friend cares for the pet for the rest of its life. If not, the pet goes to a shelter, is euthanized or is simply let out the front door. The Humane Society of the United States estimates six to eight million dogs and cats enter shelters annually. Only half are adopted.
In the confusion after an unexpected illness, accident or death, pets may be overlooked. In some cases, pets are discovered in the person's home days, or weeks, later. To prevent this from happening, the Humane Society suggests these simple precautions:
- Find at least two responsible friends or relatives who agree to serve as temporary emergency caregivers in the event that something unexpected happens to you.
- Provide the caregivers 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.
- Make sure 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.
- Carry an alert card that lists the names and phone numbers of your emergency pet caregivers.
- Post removable "in case of emergency" notices on your doors or windows specifying how many and what types of pets you have. These notices will alert emergency-response personnel during a fire or other home emergency.
How can owners ensure that pets will continue to receive proper care if something happens? The best way is by making formal arrangements that specifically cover the care of a pet.
Leaving money to a pet in your will sounds like a good idea, but is not possible. In our current legal system, an animal cannot own property and is legally considered personal property. A pet owner could leave their pet and some money to a person in their will and hope that person will care for their pet, but that person has no legal obligation to use the money for the pet. Also, wills may take weeks to be executed and could be contested.
The Humane Society recommends a pet trust, instead. Unlike a will, a pet trust can provide for a pet immediately and can apply not only if the owner dies, but also if he or she becomes ill or incapacitated. The pet owner can create a trust, put funds in the trust for the pet's care, name a caregiver for the pet and name a trustee to manage the money and oversee the caregiver. The caregiver has to use the money to take care of the pet. If the money is used for something else, a judge can order the caregiver to return the money and also can remove the caregiver and appoint a second choice as new caregiver.
It is important to seek the advice of an attorney who both understands your desire to provide for your pet and can help you create a will and trust that best provides for it. The executor of the estate, as well as the pet's designated caregiver, should have copies of the documents so that he or she can look after the pet immediately.
The Humane Society has a free fact sheet, "Providing For Your Pet's Future Without You," that outlines the steps to take to provide for a pet's future.
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