Could Mean Euthanasia for Your Pet, Ignoring It Is Perilous

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Here's a heart-wrenching statistic: An estimated half million dogs and cats are euthanized each year after their owners pass away with no provisions made for their pet. For most of us who share our lives with animals we adore, this is a difficult question to ask ourselves: What would happen to my dog, cat, bird or other companion if something happened to me?

Fortunately, though the question is a hard one to contemplate, it's actually not complicated to make arrangements for your pet in the event you're no longer able to care for her. And the peace of mind you'll receive from setting everything up ahead of time will be well worth the effort.

Who Will Care for Your Pet When You No Longer Can?

The first and most important step in planning for your pet's future care is to decide who will become his next guardian. You may already have a person in mind — someone with whom you have a mutual agreement to step in to care for family pets should it become necessary.

For many of us this is a subject that requires careful consideration. Sometimes the people closest to us — typically family members or dear friends — aren't the best choice when it comes to taking on the responsibility of pet ownership.

Give some thought to the specifics of how you want your pet to be cared for after you're gone, and then think about who would be most willing and able to provide that level of care. Some people may not have the time to properly care for a pet. Some may be busy with careers, child rearing, etc.

And what if you want your dog or cat to continue eating a raw diet or receiving acupuncture treatments. Does the caretaker you have in mind share your general pet care philosophy?

Be clear with prospective guardians about your expectations and the amount of time, effort and money that will be required to care for your pet — especially if the person you have in mind has never been a pet owner. The goal is to avoid surprising a family member or friend with pet guardianship, either because you haven't spoken with them about it, or haven't outlined what it will entail.

If your pet goes to someone who isn't prepared or becomes overwhelmed by the responsibility of it all, he or she could end up relinquishing your beloved companion to an animal shelter. When you decide on your pet's next guardian, it's also a very good idea to arrange for a backup caretaker in case your first choice is unable to take your pet when the time comes.

You and your caretaker(s) should discuss your plans in detail, and it's best to have the future owner's name, contact information and your pet's care plan in writing. Make sure copies of this information are with the caretaker, close family members, regular visitors to your home and any neighbors you're friendly with. It's also a good idea to leave a copy of the document in a conspicuous spot in your home.

What if I Don't Know Anyone Who Can Care for My Pet?

If there is no one you feel would be appropriate to care for your pet, there are fostering options that may be available to provide a temporary home until a new owner can be found. These include:

  • The breeder or shelter you bought or adopted your pet from
  • A breed or other rescue organization
  • Your local animal shelter
  • Your veterinarian
  • Your dog walker, pet sitter or groomer

  • You'll need to make arrangements ahead of time with one or more of these individuals or organizations to take charge of your pet when the time comes, and a method for notifying them immediately.

    Another option, depending on your financial situation, might be a sanctuary or "retirement home" for pets whose owners can no longer care for them. One such sanctuary, Tabby's Place in Ringoes, New Jersey, is home to about 120 kitties, some of which arrived through the organization's Guardian Angel Program. The program provides cat parents a way to ensure their pets will be cared for when they no longer can.

    There's also the Blue Bell Foundation for Cats in Laguna Beach, California. There are 50 kitties living at Blue Bell, all of which are at least 12 years old and came to the facility because their owners could no longer care for them. Some of the cats' guardians had entered assisted living facilities or nursing homes, some had developed serious health conditions, and others had passed away.

    At the Stevenson Companion Animal Life-Care Center at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, cats, dogs and other animals are permanent residents. They aren't caged, and most of the pets have the run of the entire facility, which has both full-time staff and veterinary students who live in the center to provide the animals with care and company.

    There are well over 600 pets (about half of which are kitties) enrolled to move into the center when their owners can no longer take care of them.

    The Legalities of Providing for Your Pet

    If you neglect to assign ownership of your pet in your will or a trust, your four-legged family member will automatically go to your residuary beneficiary (the person or persons who'll receive everything not assigned in your final legal documents). If you have no will or trust when you die, your pet will go to your next of kin.

    When you adopted or purchased your pet, did you sign a contract agreeing to return the animal to the breeder, shelter or some other entity in the event you can no longer keep your pet? If so, it's a good idea to attach those documents to your will or trust and give a copy to your assigned pet caretaker as well so everyone who may need the information has it.

    Your will or testament is one tool you can use to legally arrange for the care of your companion animal in the event of your death. One or more people who agree to take responsibility for your pet are named in the document, along with any assets you want to leave to that person to help with expenses.

    Another option is to leave your pet with one person and the money with another person, with instructions for reimbursing the new owner for pet-related expenses. Unfortunately, wills are not handled immediately upon a person's death, and settlements can sometimes drag on for years. In addition, specific instructions for a pet's care contained in a will are not enforceable, nor does a will allow for disbursement of monies over the remaining lifetime of the animal.

    The Importance of a Pet Trust

    Including pet care in your will is just the first step. You'll also need a legal document called a pet trust. There are different types of pet trusts. A traditional pet trust, which is legal in all 50 states in the U.S., gives you a great deal of control of your pet's care after your death. You can stipulate, for example:
  • The trustee, which is the person who will handle the finances for your pet
  • What expenses the trustee will reimburse to the caretaker
  • The type of care your pet will receive
  • What will happen in the event the caretaker you specify can no longer keep the animal

  • Another type of trust is called a statutory or honorary pet trust, which is in effect while you're alive as well as upon your death. This type of trust controls how monies are disbursed, including prior to your death if you choose.

    A statutory trust, which is also recognized in all 50 states, provides more flexibility than a traditional trust and is the simplest to do, especially if you already know who your pet's caretaker will be after your death, and that person is aware of and agrees with your wishes.

    A third type of trust is a revocable living trust, which avoids probate after your death. The benefit of this type of trust is it can eliminate the majority of disputes and challenges to a standard will.

    Ways to Fund Future Pet Care

    You can use cash, life insurance, stocks, bonds, annuities, and assets like your home or car to provide funding for your pet, and there are various ways to make the funds accessible to your pet's caretaker after your death. For example, if you have a living trust you can transfer cash or other assets into it yourself. You can also name your trust as beneficiary of your life insurance policy.

    I recommend you talk with an attorney or other qualified professional about how to fund your pet's financial future and the proper way to go about it based on your individual financial situation. For more information and tools to help you plan for lifetime care for your pet, visit 2nd Chance for Pets.

    Despite the sad nature of this undertaking, it's actually not difficult to provide for your pet should you precede her in death or become unable to care for her. And pet guardians who set things up ahead of time rest easy knowing their beloved animal companion will be well cared for after they're gone.