Have you thought about what will happen to your cat if you become ill, or incapacitated and must move into a care facility, or you unexpectedly die? Have you made permanent arrangements for your cat after you’re gone?
More than 500,000 pets that were loved and cared for are euthanized every year in U.S. animal shelters because their caregivers became incapacitated or died and they made no prior arrangements for the ongoing care of their pet. This is tragic, but it doesn’t have to happen. Here’s how to protect your pet with a pet trust, will and pet protection agreement.
It’s critical to have a plan in place for when you die. Your plan should include two elements: an emergency plan that goes into effect to provide immediate care for your pet, and a long-term plan through a trust or pet agreement that is shared with a good friend, relatives, and neighbors. This will ensure that your pet receives the immediate care needed and promptly goes into the right hands that know your plan.
Pets are often overlooked when their caregiver becomes incapacitated or dies, and your pet can be discovered days after the tragedy suffering or dying in the home, or they can fall into the wrong hands that take the pet to the local shelter, not knowing that a plan was in place or because there was no plan in place. With a formal plan, you can have the peace of mind that your pet will be well cared for after you die.
To establish a plan you will need to work with an attorney to create a living trust or pet trust, or consider one of these alternative options. The benefit to a trust, is a trust can go into effect immediately, as opposed to a will that can take weeks or months to be implemented and can be contested, endangering your beloved pet’s life.
Here are several options to help you put a plan in place to ensure your pet’s future after you’re gone.
Identify a Caregiver for Your Pet
First consider identifying a trusted and willing family member, friend or neighbor who would serve as a responsible, agreeable caregiver that you could appoint as a guardian after you’re gone. If you can’t find someone to be a permanent guardian, consider identifying 2-3 friends, relatives or neighbors to act as interim, temporary or emergency caretakers if something happens to you. They will be the people who come to your home immediately and remove your pet(s) and provide temporary care for them, until your established plan is implemented. They can also be tasked with bringing your beloved pet to the place you have designated (like a “continuing care program”) upon your death.
You will want to provide the interim caregiver with an information sheet on your pet(s) including: care and feeding instructions, any medical prescriptions and where the prescriptions are located, any medical concerns, your veterinarian’s contact information, and any permanent care provisions that you have set up. Give each designated caregiver keys to your home, so they can act immediately to remove and protect your pet(s). Make sure relatives are knowledgeable about these caregiver appointments and have their contact information should something happen to you.
Special Continuing Care Programs
Some rescue groups, shelters and veterinary schools offer continuing care programs where you pay a fee, or give an annual donation, or a one-time large donation to the organization in return for their promise to care for your pet. This is usually a service provided for people who have specified in their will or trust that their pet(s) are to be entrusted to the specific organization’s program at the time of their death. Eligibility is typically available for people who either make regular annual donations to the organization or make a one-time donation or pay a fee before or upon their death, documented in the will or trust.
For example, in Walnut Creek, California, one such place is Animal Rescue Foundation’s Guardian Program. Another is the San Francisco SPCA’s Sido Program, where cats and dogs can be enrolled to receive immediate care until a new loving home is found. In New York, the North Shore Animal League in Port Washington has a program called the Safe Haven Surviving Pet Care Program that guarantees care until they can get your pet adopted into a loving home. For the Safe Haven program, you pay a one-time fee of $10,000 for your first pet and $5,000 for each additional pet to join the program. If you can’t identify a caregiver for your pet that you trust after you’re gone, then this type of program is a good option for you.
Establishing a Pet Trust
Most states have passed laws that allow pet owners to establish trusts specifically for their pets. Setting up a “pet trust” is similar to establishing one for a child or relative. You will name a trustee and caregiver for your pet. The trustee will be in charge of dispersing your money or property to the caregiver who will then use the money to care for your pet in the way you have specified in the trust. Or the trust can name an organization that has previously agreed to take on the care of your pet (like the above-mentioned Continuing Care Programs), and will identify a person to transport the pet to the designated organization. Establishing a pet trust will require trustees to carry out your pet trust’s instructions exactly as you documented and intended and will incorporate oversight into guaranteeing its performance.
Drawing up your pet trust, you will want to include specific care instructions, foods and medicines, where the medicines are located, your veterinary information, and the identification of an “alternative” pet guardian should something happen to your primary pet guardian. You will want to consult with an estate-planning attorney when creating a pet trust, or contact a special pet trust attorney who is specifically experienced in creating pet trusts.
Establish a Pet Protection Agreement
Generally pet protection agreements are less expensive, but also less protective than a pet trust. If you don’t have money to establish and maintain a trust, then identify one or more caregivers and write out an agreement that identifies the person(s) who will care for your pet when you die or when you are no longer able to provide continuing care for your pet. You don’t necessarily need an attorney to do this, but if you write the agreement yourself you should go to a Notary and get it notarized, dated and signed, then provide family, friends, neighbors, your vet and caregiver with copies to ensure that it happens.
Another option is to use LegalZoom’s Pet Protection Agreement form, which starts at $39 dollars. Once completed, signed and dated, make copies and make sure that your designated caregiver, family, friends, neighbors and veterinarian all have copies of the agreement to make sure there is proper follow through.
Wills and What They Mean to Your Pet
Some trust attorneys experienced in drawing up pet trusts say that a will is very inferior to a trust, and often fails to protect pets. Wills can take a long time to read and process and in the meantime your pet’s life is at stake if no one is immediately stepping in to remove them from the home and care for them. Oftentimes, pets end up at shelters or are euthanized, while the will is being processed. It’s just too late for them.
Overall, the most important thing to remember is to take action in preparing for when an emergency may happen to you that will prevent you from caring for your beloved pet. It’s best to always put everything into writing including who you have designated to care for your pet going forward and how you wish to have your pet cared for. Doing something is better than doing nothing, especially when your pet’s life is at stake.
Important Additional Resources
2nd Chance 4 Pets – Provides lifetime care solutions and information to pet owners to help plan for your pet’s continued care. Download the Care Instructions Form from their website or see here.
Another article on Providing For Your Pet’s Future Without You, with some helpful resources, by Petfinder
Factsheet – Providing For Your Pet’s Future Without You, by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).
Pet Trust Attorney, Rachel Hirschfeld – She specializes solely in establishing pet trusts or Pet Protection Agreement Pet Trusts. She is available for consultation and the preparation of all documents to establish your trust.
Estate Planning for Owners and Their Animal Companions (PDF), by Rachel Hirschfeld.
Pet Trust Primer, by the ASPCA.
List of states that have State Pet Trust Laws provided by NOLO, and by the ASPCA (2012).