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Backup Plan

Estate planning experts urge pet owners to prepare for the possibility that their animal companions may outlive them

All Animals magazine, July/August 2013

What will happen to your pet if you're no longer in the picture? Aleksandra Yakovieva/GettyImages

by James Hettinger

Volunteering at an animal shelter in California in the 1980s, Amy Shever saw people who, after the death of their mother or father, would give their parents’ pets to the shelter.

Many of the formerly beloved companions “would just curl up in a ball and wouldn’t eat,” Shever recalls. “When you have a dog that’s been sitting on someone’s lap or sleeping in someone’s bed ... the experience at the shelter can be incredibly overwhelming for them, and many of them become despondent.”

When the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, left an estimated 800 pets orphaned in New York City, Shever started thinking about it again. As she boarded a plane for a vacation, she realized there’s no guarantee that she’ll outlive her own pets. What would happen to them if she didn’t?

That lack of knowledge sends an estimated 100,000 to 500,000 pets to shelters each year after their owners die or become incapacitated.

She found a few resources online, but she also learned that only a small percentage of Americans ever create a trust or a will, and those who do rarely update them.

Shever founded the nonprofit 2nd Chance 4 Pets in 2003 and has been talking to people about the importance of ensuring their pets’ future ever since. Speaking at conferences around the country, she brings a banner of a sad-eyed dog posing a question: “If anything happened to you, what would happen to me?”

It sparks a variety of responses, Shever says. People tend to say either, “Oh! I’ve never thought about that,” or “You know, I’ve thought about that, but I really am not sure what to do.”

That lack of knowledge sends an estimated 100,000 to 500,000 pets to shelters each year after their owners die or become incapacitated. In communities with high populations of senior citizens, says Shever, pets outliving their owners can make up half a shelter’s intakes.

They include animals like William, a Siamese cat taken in by BrightHaven, a sanctuary for older pets in Santa Rosa, Calif. When William’s owner died, the family took him to a shelter to be euthanized. BrightHaven stepped in after receiving a call from a shelter volunteer, but many pets whose owners die without a plan in place aren’t as lucky.

A little planning can provide some peace of mind—knowing that whatever happens to you, your pets will be just fine.

Why do otherwise doting pet parents fail to make such plans? Most people assume they’ll outlive their pets, says Barry Seltzer, a Toronto-based estate lawyer and co-author of Fat Cats & Lucky Dogs: How to Leave (Some of) Your Estate to Your Pet. And death and disability are topics that many people refuse to face. The situation prompted Seltzer to pen a modified version of the Bible’s Proverbs 29:18:

Where there is no vision, pets perish.
Where there’s procrastination, pets perish.
And where there is no plan in place, pets perish.

Fortunately, there are options for ensuring your pet’s future isn’t left up to blind luck. Gerry Beyer, a law professor and co-author of Fat Cats & Lucky Dogs, recalls that people made good-natured fun of his first article on the subject, published in a law review a dozen years ago. “Since then, the interest in the topic has grown exponentially,” he says, and most states now have pet trust laws in place.

No one can know the future. Even the youngest or healthiest of us are vulnerable to accidents. A little planning can provide some peace of mind—knowing that whatever happens to you, your pets will be just fine.

  • After Fredonia's owner died, the surviving spouse planned to have the senior cat euthanized. Fortunately, Peaceful Passings Sanctuary in Bremo Bluff, Va., took her in. Dave Sagarin for Peaceful Passings

Estate Planning for Pets 101

Find Your Replacement

Identifying a committed caregiver is the most important step in planning for your pet’s future, says Shever. Talk with everyone from your veterinarian to family members and pet-sitters about becoming your pet’s designated caregiver. “A lot of people just assume, ‘Oh, my son’s going to take the dog, or my daughter’s going to take the cat,’ and then what happens is they don’t want to take the pets,” she says. To avoid misunderstandings, Shever recommends getting commitments in writing.

Appoint an Understudy

You should also identify alternate caregivers, says Beyer, since a designated caregiver might end up traveling frequently or living somewhere that doesn’t allow pets. If you can’t identify a trustworthy caretaker and at least one good alternate, 2nd Chance 4 Pets recommends choosing a panel of friends or family members in charge of selecting a long-term caregiver and arranging temporary care for your animal until a permanent situation is worked out.

Establish Expectations

Create an information packet that details your pet’s medical history and daily care needs, Shever says, because “obviously, a cat or a dog can’t say, ‘Oh, well, here’s the food I eat, here’s how much I eat, here’s when I need my treats, here’s when I need my walk.’ ” Make sure the information is easily accessible and specifies the standard of living you want for your pet, including medical care and end-of-life decisions.

Pets on Pensions

Set aside a fund to cover your pet’s future expenses. For example, you can designate the trustee of your pet trust as the beneficiary of a life insurance policy or a bank account that’s payable upon your death. This ensures the trustee has immediate cash to devote to your pet’s care. Don’t transfer outrageous sums of money—they’ll be contested, Beyer advises.

A Formal Affair

While informal arrangements can work, “you are betting that ... your pet’s caregiver will remain healthy, dependable, responsible, committed, and financially and emotionally secure,” Beyer and Seltzer write in Fat Cats & Lucky Dogs. Steve Maughan, HSUS senior director of planned gifts and estates, recommends a well-crafted legal arrangement: “It’s far easier to deal with a simple will or trust than some vague statements or expectations,” Maughan says. “And you can rest assured that your intentions will be carried out.”

Where There’s a Will

An estimated 27 percent of U.S. pet owners who have wills include provisions for their pets, but according to Fat Cats & Lucky Dogs, they’re often ill-conceived or inadequate. They simply leave Max the dog to Uncle Harry, for example, without covering expenses or backup caregivers. It’s preferable to leave both your pet and money to a caregiver, with the clear understanding that the money should go toward your animal’s care.

In Pets We Trust

While trusts can be relatively expensive to administer and maintain, they add a layer of oversight: The trustee pays the money to your appointed caregiver and may regularly inspect your pet’s health and living conditions. Having the person with the money be someone different from the person with custody of your animal creates a system of checks and balances, Beyer says.

Legal Hoops

Many types of wills and trusts exist, so it’s crucial to prepare carefully and seek legal advice. Before talking with a lawyer, you should have a plan in mind, Seltzer says. It’s essentially “planning the same as you might if you were dealing with a young child.”

Learn more about providing for your pet's future »

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