In the United States approximately 62% of households have a pet. In a recent independently administered ASPCA survey of 1000 pet owners, only 17% had taken the necessary legal steps to protect their pet’s future. Among the 1000 pet owners surveyed, 42% already had a valid will in place but only 18% included their pet in it. The ASPCA estimates approximately 100,000 pets are entered into shelters every year due to their guardian becoming unable to care for them or because the guardian died. And, of the four million pets euthanized in shelters in the United States each year, around 500,000 are euthanized because their owners did not have a contingency plan in place encase of their absence. The pet’s fate is left to luck and circumstances if their human caretaker did not develop a plan. Often, it is a family member of the pet owner who brings the pet to a shelter claiming they do not have the resources to care for the pet and all efforts to find it a new home have failed. Many times the pet is quite elderly and will spend their final days among strangers in a strange land. These orphaned animals are so despondent-not wanting to eat or interact with others, that they are labeled as unadoptable and don’t “sell” well.
In the eyes of the law, animals are considered tangible personal property, however, estate and trust lawyers don’t think of pets as property thereby rarely raising the issue of pet guardianship and animal trusts when discussing other estate planning issues with their clients. All responsible pet owners need to have a contingency plan in place for their pets; something concrete to ensure their pets will be taken care of should something unexpected happen to them. Start by naming, at least, two responsible friends or relatives committed to caring for your pets, permanently if you die, temporarily if you are hospitalized or incapacitated. If a committed friend or family member cannot be established then explore other avenues such as a pet sitter, rescue groups, or veterinarian technicians or students. Bequeathing your pet to somebody in your will is a good option and it is better than nothing at all but keep in mind that a will can be contested over a number of matters not necessarily having to do with the pet, in which case, the will can be held up in probate, putting the estate property, and this includes the pet, on hold for months at a time.
Having a clear and detailed set of instructions for the designated caregiver will benefit the pet greatly. List things like diet, exercise, medications or special medical needs, daily routine, location of veterinarian, and pet sitters. Include information pertaining to behavioral habits such as hates the vacuum cleaner, loves to chase balls, preference time for walks, etc. Another good idea is to carry an “animal card” in your wallet with your pet’s name, type, location, name of contact person and any special care instructions. That way, if you are injured or incapacitated, a police officer, doctor or other responsible person knows that a pet is relying on you. In addition, keeping an “animal document” with other estate planning materials consisting of the same information that is on the animal card, will expedite finding the pet and contacting its legal guardian.
To ensure that your pet is well cared for, provide adequate money for the care of your pet for the remainder of its lifetime. To do this calculation, estimate the pets yearly cost, like food, vet visits, etc. and multiply that by its life expectancy. Funds for lifetime care can be established in wills and estate planning and pet trusts. You don’t have to be a millionaire to leave the appropriate funds to provide for the daily life of a pet. There are two types of pet trusts, generally speaking. First, there is a traditional pet trust which is recognized by all states. It allows the owner to appoint a trustee to manage a stated amount of money for the pet, specify a caregiver, outline the type of care the pet is to receive, the kinds of expenses the caregiver will pay, and what is to be done should the designated caregiver can no longer care for the pet. The other trust is a “statutory pet trust” which is authorized in a majority of states but it does not allow the pet owner to make many decisions concerning the terms of the trust. It is a basic, bare-bones document where the state fills any and all gaps. This trust may not give the pet owner the peace of mind desired about how their pet will be cared for upon their demise.
Our pets rely on us to take care of them regardless of the circumstances. It is irresponsible to ignore these issues and not make a solid and detailed contingency plan for him. After all, he is family, too.