Not many people like to talk about death. But if you died today, who would take care of your pets? Do you have a plan?
Experts say having an estate plan for your pets — a will for your dog or a pet trust — isn’t morbid or only for the wealthy; it’s smart — and could even save their life.
“It’s imperative to have a plan for your pets. If you leave their care to chance, you don’t know where your pets may end up — which could include a shelter,” says attorney Jennifer Cona, founder and managing partner of Cona Elder Law.
Start your pet estate plan
Start your estate planning by making a list of people you trust to take custody of your pets if you pass.
“Just as parents name guardians for their children, they should plan for their pets,” says attorney Tracy Craig, a partner in the trusts and estates group at Mirick O’Connell law firm.
Then have a serious conversation with your “in-case-of-emergency candidates.” Be sure they can handle the job, their heart is in it and they agree to do it. You don’t want to be dead, and they’re shocked they suddenly inherited a dog.
“Never make it a surprise. Never. Never. Never. Not if you want your wishes followed,” Jennifer says. “That’s a recipe for disaster, and you’re trying to set things up for success. That’s why you’re making this plan.”
When you find someone to be your dog’s guardian and feel confident they’ll follow through, you can write up the agreement in an informal letter of intent or final wishes.
“It is not legally binding, but, for example, if a parent is leaving his or her pet to an adult child who is familiar with the animal, this sort of plan may be all that they need,” says attorney Seth Bier, founder of the firm Bier Law.
What is a pet will
A will is another way to plan for your dog’s future. But estate planning attorneys warn the legal document has no teeth to ensure the person you leave your dog to would care for them.
“You can give your pet to someone in your will. Simply state: ‘I leave my dog, Bella, to my brother John Smith,’” Tracy says. “This statement is legally binding and establishes that John will inherit Bella. However, this means John will become Bella’s owner, so he can do whatever he likes with her. John can drop Bella off at a shelter if he doesn’t want her or decides the new arrangement isn’t working out.”
Even if you leave someone money in your will to look after your pet, there’s nothing to prevent them from taking the dough and dumping your dog.
“Once that money is in somebody else’s hands, they can kind of do whatever they want with it,” Jennifer says.
What is a pet trust
Set up a pet trust if you want to be certain your last wishes are legally enforceable and specific.
“It’s for anybody who wants to make sure their dog or dogs are cared for properly,” Jennifer says.
You don’t need to be a millionaire to set up a trust, but you do need to leave money aside specifically for your pet.
Calculate how much it will cost for your pet to live out her life. Factor in food, prescriptions, monthly preventives, medical appointments, dog daycare, pet insurance and emergency funds.
Then write a plan detailing your dog’s needs. “You may want to incorporate such details as the brand of food your pet prefers, the name of the veterinarian, and descriptions of favorite toys,” Jennifer says.
Choose pet caretakers and trustees for your pet trust
The next step is to name pet caretakers and trustees.
A caretaker becomes the legal owner of your dog after you die.
The trustee will open a bank account and oversee the funds you leave for your dog. These two positions don’t have to be given to the same person.
“Often, clients prefer to have one person as the trustee and one as the caretaker, so there is a sort of checks and balances system in place to ensure that their companions are properly looked after,” Seth says.
The trustee is responsible for confirming the caretaker follows your plan and uses your money for your pet.
Designate a backup trustee and caretaker just in case one doesn’t work out. Consult an attorney to finalize your plan.
You have options if you don’t have anyone to be your dog’s caretaker. Some rescue groups and no-kill shelters, like Austin Pets Alive, have programs where you can plan for an organization to become your pet’s guardian after you die.
“These programs are set up so people know their pets have a place to go where they will be safe. They will be cared for and readopted into loving homes,” Stephanie says.
Make your pet estate plans known
Once you have a plan, make it known.
If you suffer a medical emergency or die suddenly, police need to know that you have pets and who to contact to help them.
Hang a notice on your fridge listing the kind of pets you have and their names. Include the contact information for the people you’ve appointed as their caretakers. Put the same instructions in your wallet and add it to your smartphone’s emergency or medical notes.
“The more places you can put this information the better, so that all of the bases are covered, and you’re more likely to have somebody look and be able to care for your pets,” Stephanie says.
Animal welfare experts say the number of pets they see brought to shelters because their owners died is haunting.
“This happens all the time. We know the people who loved them would be heartbroken,” says Stephanie Muller-Simpson, chief of philanthropy at Austin Pets Alive, a nonprofit, no-kill shelter and animal advocacy group.
It happened to Jake, a friendly, kind-eyed, black Labrador with a gray muzzle. After his owner died, his life turned upside down. Animal control officers brought him to a municipal shelter, where he had his own brush with death.
Jake contracted several respiratory viruses at the facility. He was about to be euthanized because he was sick, the shelter was full and no one wanted him. When Sheila Griffin heard about Jake, his story broke her heart. The Texas nurse fostered, then adopted Jake, saving his life.
“You just wonder what in the world went on in this dog’s life before he ended up there,” Sheila says. “Nobody stepped up and kept him from going to a place where there was a danger of being put down. People can’t assume their loved ones will be taken care of.”
Witnessing Jake’s near-death experience and working as a nurse during the Covid pandemic was eye-opening for Sheila. The events motivated her to update her estate plan.
“I think in this country, we’re not very good at thinking about death and dying,” she says. “But if someone values their animals and what happens to them, they should be a part of their estate planning. Don’t wait until the last minute or until there is a crisis.”