February 01, 2021 Feature

Lifestyles: Be Sure to Have a Written Plan to Care for Your Fur Babies

Twyla Sketchley

Perhaps you’re reading this with your beloved cat curled up next to you. Or maybe your adored pup is leaning into you while snoring.

By taking steps now, you can ensure your faithful companion will live a long, happy life no matter what happens to you.

By taking steps now, you can ensure your faithful companion will live a long, happy life no matter what happens to you.

kumikomini / E+ Collection / Getty Images

Now imagine that treasured family member landing at a shelter if something unexpectedly happened to you and your family members couldn’t suddenly take responsibility for an animal they didn’t choose as a housemate.

That happens more than people realize. More than 500,000 pets are euthanized each year because pet owners didn’t have a written plan of care when they were no longer able to care for their pet due to death or disability, according to attorney and animal advocate Peggy Hoyt, founder of the nonprofit Animal Care Trust USA. Thousands more are abandoned and left to seek food and shelter wherever a good Samaritan will allow them.

By taking steps now, you can ensure your faithful companion will live a long, happy life no matter what happens to you.

Unlike Other “Property”

Sixty-seven percent of American homes have a pet, according to an American Pet Products Association 2019–2020 survey. From dogs and cats to horses and snakes, Americans own more than 393 million pets. Research by the University of Michigan indicates that 55 percent of adults age 55 to 80 have pets and report that those pets reduce their stress and give them a sense of purpose.

Most pet owners say their pets, or what many call their “fur babies,” are members of their family. All 50 states allow pet owners to create pet trusts and have laws to protect animals from abuse and neglect. However, the law generally views your pet as a piece of tangible personal property akin to your favorite recliner or your grandmother’s handmade quilt. Without proper planning, your family may dispose of your pet just as they’d dispose of that recliner or quilt.

Many people have never thought about what would happen to their pet if they died or became unable to care for themselves and, in turn, their pet. They often assume one of their adult children will take responsibility for the pet, which is unexpected news to many of those children when the need arises. People who have thought about the issue often believe addressing it in their last will and testament will solve the problem.

Both approaches leave your beloved pet at the mercy of family members who may be struggling to find appropriate care for you or grieving your loss, and those family members may look at caring for your pet as an added burden. Your family members may also be unable to care for your pet due to cost, inadequate living arrangements, a lack of stability, or simply distance.

And let’s be honest. Others may not find your pet’s quirks as adorable as you do.

Picking a New Companion

The first step in ensuring your pet is cared for is to develop a written plan and pick an appropriate caregiver. That person should be able and willing to take your pet if you’re unable to provide care.

When choosing a pet caregiver, consider the kind of pet you have and its needs. Assuming that your adult child or neighbor will care for your pets can lead to unhappy pets and even disasters. Consider these examples:

  • Border collies need space to run and a caregiver who can play with them every day. An adult child in a small apartment often can’t meet those needs without major effort.
  • A sulcata tortoise will need ample space outdoors in a climate that stays between 70 and 100 degrees. Winter in Montana would kill it.
  • A gray parrot can live to 80 and needs a caregiver to play with it daily so the parrot won’t get bored and harm itself.
  • Dangerous snakes and birds of prey will require a caregiver with the appropriate licenses and housing.

According to Hoyt, finding a forever home for your beloved pet can be difficult. If you’re unable to find someone willing and able to care for your pet, you may have to look to your veterinarian or rescues for certain types of pets. Often, dog rescues can help place specific breeds. In rural communities, there are often horse and donkey rescues that can help you find a home for your cherished pony.

For more exotic pets, such as parrots, tortoises, birds of prey, or snakes and other reptiles, finding a caregiver may require you to look in other parts of the country or to approach zoos or sanctuaries. Hoyt’s nonprofit, Animal Care Trust USA, has created a program to help pet owners plan to find forever homes.

Write It All Down

Once you’ve found an appropriate and willing caregiver, put that designation in writing. This is a separate writing kept with your estate planning documents. It should include the following information:

  • The name and contact information of the caregiver and alternate caregiver
  • The name and type of pet going to the caregiver
  • Because pets are treated like property, explicit permission for the caregiver to take possession of the pet, even if you’re alive

Rescues, zoos, and sanctuaries often require specific paperwork or language in your caregiver designations. Be sure to include this language and to keep all the necessary paperwork with your estate planning documents. You should also include a provision in your durable power of attorney allowing your agent to give your pet to the pet caregiver during your lifetime if you become unable to do so yourself.

Next determine how much it will cost to provide care for your pet once it has gone to live with the caregiver you’ve chosen. Calculate the cost of yearly veterinary services; food, including any special dietary needs; and housing. Multiply this by your pet’s life expectancy. Add the costs of transportation, if needed, and final disposition of your pet, such as euthanization and cremation.

If you need help determining these costs, the American Pet Products Association has national averages for typical pets available on its website. For example, in 2019-2020, the average cost of a typical dog in the United States was about $1,400 a year or $14,000 for a dog with a 10-year life expectancy.

You’ll probably need to do more research to calculate the cost of an exotic or specialized pet. Rescue organizations, zoos, and sanctuaries may have a set or minimum fee you’ll need to set aside as part of their caregiving arrangements. The organization will provide you with the amount required as part of your planning process.

Trust Is the Way to Go

Finally, you’ll need to create financial arrangements to support your pet, which are typically based on the caregiving arrangements you make. If you’re using a rescue organization, zoo, or sanctuary, you may be required to provide a donation in a specific amount directly to the organization. If, on the other hand, your adult daughter is willing to take your beloved standard poodle, you may choose to give her a lump sum equal to the cost of caring for your pooch.

However, Hoyt says using a pet trust will ensure that the money you set aside for your pet is actually used for your pet’s care. There are legal consequences for trustees who don’t do that.

A pet trust is a legal arrangement set up in a will or a separate trust document. It allocates certain assets to be used to provide care for your pets for their lifetime. A trustee administers the trust based on the requirements you’ve put in the trust.

While pet trust laws used to require that the trust beneficiary be a human, all states now allow a pet to be the beneficiary. Adding a provision in your durable power of attorney to allow your agent to create and fund a pet trust in the event you’re unable to do so creates additional protections for your pet.

Finally, once you’ve written your pet caregiving arrangements, be sure to tell your family, close friends, and veterinarian about your plan. No matter how good that plan is, if no one knows about it, no one can execute it.

Provide a copy of your pet caregiver designation to the caregiver and your veterinarian. Give your family the contact information for your pet caregiver and any instructions on how to get your pet to the caregiver in an emergency. And send your family and pet caregiver instructions on how to care for your pet and, if it’s not already covered in the documents you’ve provided, information on who will be in charge of the funds to support your pet.

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Twyla Sketchley

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Twyla Sketchley is a solo practitioner at a law firm bearing her name in Tallahassee, Fla. She’s board certified in elder law by the Florida Bar.