Today we live in a world that is unpredictable, one that is generating some anxiety in all of us. Wondering when and how life will return to some sense of normalcy is on all of our minds while at the same time trying to keep ourselves and our families safe. During this time many people have begun to think about questions they may not have considered until now. What if I become sick? What if my family is sick? What would happen if I might die? These are important questions and ones that need to be addressed even in less stressful times. Equally important, but often overlooked, is consideration of care for our pets. Pets are family members without a voice and the trust they have in us is the basis of our bond. As we create plans to address the many contingencies we may face, a plan for our pets need to be a part of those considerations.
Developing plans for pets need to address an immediate need created by an unexpected emergency and then a long-term care option in the case of your death. As a pet sitter I have seen more than one instance where no plan was in place and the chaos and confusion created could have been avoided with a little foresight. Assuming that relatives or neighbors will step in is not a plan unless you have previously worked out an arrangement.
Emergency Plan for Short Term Care
In the case of an emergency, the key to ensuring your pet will be taken care of is a matter having the following in place:
- Decide and discuss with relatives, neighbors or friends who would willing to be a primary short-term caregiver.It would be best to arrange for more than one person as back-ups in case the first line individual is unable at the time to take on the responsibility.
- Make sure caregivers have keys to your home, instructions for care in terms of feeding and any medications and make sure that information is updated as your pet’s situation changes.
- Provide each potential caregiver a list of phone numbers the individuals may need to access – veterinarian, pet sitter and other individuals who have indicated a willingness to help with the care.
- Stay in contact with these individuals to make sure they are still willing and able to help with care.
- Carry with you in your wallet or purse information regarding your pets and the names and numbers of the emergency caregivers in case of an accident or other emergency where you may not be able to contact the individuals.
- Post on your door or window information regarding the presence of your pets in case emergency personnel might need to access your residence.Inside post a list of your pet caregivers and their phone numbers in case they will need to be contacted.
Long-term Care Plans
While some temporary caregivers may be willing to assume ownership of your pet if something prevents you from once again being able to care for them, different arrangements should be in place. Short term care is one thing but you will need to identify individuals who would be willing to take on all that lifelong pet ownership entails. This involves having a serious conversation with potential caregivers discussing your expectations and desires for how you would like your pet to be cared for going forward. To avoid any misunderstandings, it is best if you formalize your arrangement and expectations in a legal document. There are multiple ways to do this each involving varying levels of professional legal involvement. The following are possibilities:
- Create a Pet Care Agreement.This is an agreement you draw up naming the caregiver and individuals who might also help out in the event the first named individual is unable to do so(1). The agreement should include a statement that both you and the caregiver agree to the terms spelled out in the document. Specific instructions regarding care and a clear description of your pet. A statement regarding funding that you would provide or have set aside so that the pet’s care might be covered and how that funding can be accessed and dispersed.It is best to include a statement that the caregiver agrees to adopt the pet and will keep it as a family or companion animal.
The agreement should be notarized to ensure its legal standing. You may want to have an attorney review the document to ensure it meets legal standards as what you have created is essentially a contract. You can also have an attorney draw up an agreement if you would feel more comfortable.
- Make provisions in your will. Wills are utilized to distribute property upon your death. Recent circumstances have generated increased interest in having or revising individual wills and this is a good time to think about whether this might be the best way to arrange for your pet’s care. While we might all disagree, dogs are legally considered property and including directions for their future care can be provided for in your will.Unfortunately for Fido, you cannot leave him money directly and will need to designate a willing party who will become your pets new owner.This individual will be given any money that you have designated for your pet’s care.You need to know that legally in some states the individual is not required to care for your pet or to use the money for that care so be very careful and confident in the person you name.Detailed instructions regarding care can be addressed in a separate document.
While convenient, there are certain drawbacks to a will when setting up care plans. A will takes effect upon your death, but you need to be aware that arrangements for care must be in place for the time it takes the court to review the document and distribution of assets is finalized. Also, a will does not cover time when you are alive but no longer able to provide care so you will need to ensure separate provisions are made for this event. It is possible when drafting your will to make a conditional bequest which directly stipulates the caregiver and a sum of money that must be used for the pets care. The executor of the will is then responsible to making sure the money is used as designated. You will need to review the laws in your state to see if conditional bequests are allowed(2).
- Create a Trust for your Pet.You will need legal assistance when developing a trust and the individual you select to do this should have experience in trust law.A trust as opposed to a will establishes a legal obligation to care for the pet and to use the funds designated for that care.The essence of the trust is the designation of a trustee, of the caregiver, the specific detailed instructions for care and the funding for the care.A trust does not require a period of probate and can take effect not only if you die but also if you are disabled and no longer able to provide care.There are types of trusts and varying means of establishing them and your attorney can point you in the right direction.
Again, it is important to determine if trusts for animal care are legal in your state. Even if pet trusts are legal, you need to be aware that establishing trusts with significant sums of money designated for the care of an animal or animals might lead to disputes with other heirs or beneficiaries after your death.
While none of us want to consider a time when our pets aren’t siting on our lap, begging for a treat or asking for a walk, the reality of today’s world has generated a level of uncertainty that requires us to think and plan for the uncertain. Including our furry friends in our plans ensures they will have a future even if we can’t be there. There are so many ways to create a means of taking care of our special companions we need to do our homework and find the vehicle that best suits our needs, resources and desires.