How to Care for Your Pets After You’re Gone

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Estate planning is smart for a lot of reasons. One easily overlooked one is to make sure your beloved animal sidekicks will be well taken care of if you should die before they do.

As anyone who has worked at an animal shelter will tell you, a number of the pets there were beloved companions who became homeless because of their owners’ deaths.

Trouble’s story

Perhaps the most spectacular illustration of estate planning for a pet was the $12 million fortune that hotel magnate Leona Helmsley bequeathed to her little white Maltese, Trouble.

Trouble, presumably the world’s richest dog, died in 2011 at age 12, leading ABC News to reminisce:

When Helmsley died in 2007, she left Trouble $12 million. Twelve million! A judge knocked it down to $2 million but still, she was one of the world’s wealthiest animals.

Helmsley was eccentric, but on this question, at least, she had the right idea. Lining up care for your pets in case you die ensures that your animals won’t be abandoned.

Problem for shelters

Shelters do a spectacular job, by and large, but the problem of abandoned pets is overwhelming.

“Every year, 5 [million] to 8 million homeless pets are cared for by our nation’s shelters, with a staggering 3 [million] to 4 million of those pets euthanized, even though the overwhelming majority of them are considered to be healthy and adoptable,” says a study by the American Humane Association.

Six months after their adoption, 10 percent of adopted animals were returned, dead, lost or living in another household, the study found.

With that in mind, here are 14 steps for planning care for your pets so they’ll have homes if you die before they do:

1. Identify possible caregivers

Make a list of people or families who would be great candidates to care for your pets.

2. Get permission

Don’t surprise someone by naming them in your will to care for your animals. Talk it over first and make sure they’re on board. If you sense hesitation, move on down your list.

“The person who will receive an animal as the result of a bequest in a will should understand that he or she becomes the animal’s owner and, as such, has all the rights and responsibilities of ownership,” says the New York City Bar publication, “Providing for Your Pets in the Event of Your Death or Hospitalization.”

3. Find backups

Identify two or three alternative caregivers so that if your first choice isn’t available, your survivors will have others to contact.

4. Ask the breeder

If you can’t find friends or family who’ll agree to take your pets, try other routes. If your pet came from a breeder, that’s one possibility.

“If you bought from a reputable breeder, they will usually be happy to take the dog back and either keep him or find him a new loving home,” suggests The I Love Dogs Site.

5. Consider a shelter or pet charity

Some organizations will, if you leave them a cash bequest, care for your animals for the rest of their lives or find homes for them. Before deciding on a group, inspect the facility and investigate.

  • Ask veterinarians and others about the organization’s reputation.
  • Learn exactly what care pets in a similar situation have received.
  • Learn how the organization conducts an adoption search and screens potential homes and owners.

6. In case of Rapture

After the Rapture Pet Care was founded to care for the pets of Christians who believe they will leave earth in the Rapture (the Rapture is “a future, end-times event when all true believers who are still alive before the end of the world will be taken from the earth by God into heaven,” says

The pet care group says it’s in earnest: “There are sarcastic joke sites on the Internet about many ‘after the Rapture’ functions, as well as services run by atheists for a profit, but we are a real service.”

You’ll probably need another option, however, as After the Rapture doesn’t offer to care for pets whose owners die in the normal course of events.

7. Set up separate short-term care

A gap of weeks to months may exist between a death and the reading of the will. Plan for this period, too.

Ask friends or family members if they’ll take your pets until your long-term plan swings into effect. Or arrange with someone to come into your home to feed and exercise your pets.

Give short-term caregivers a key to your home or tell them where to find one. If necessary, give them written permission to enter your apartment or condo building.

8. Write your plan into your will

If you don’t have a written will, now’s the time to get one. Include in it, or in your estate trust, your hopes (directions aren’t enforceable) and plan for your pet. Name the caretaker and backups you’ve chosen.

Nolo, the legal publisher, offers sample language:

“If my dog, Taffy, is alive at my death, I leave her and $3,000 to be used for her care to Brian Smith. If Brian is unable to care for Taffy, I leave her and the $3,000 to be used for her care to Susan McDermott.”

Nolo continues:

If you don’t name a new owner in your will or trust, one of two generally undesirable consequences will result:

  • Your dog will go to the residuary beneficiary of your will (the beneficiary who inherits everything that’s not taken care of by the rest of the will); or,

  • If you don’t have a will, the dog will go to your next of kin, as determined by state law.

9. Leave emergency instructions

Prepare a note with instructions for the immediate care of your pets, including contact information for short-term caregivers and medical and other information about the animals’ care. Leave one copy with the executor of your will. Put a copy on your refrigerator or where it can be easily found.

10. Provide some money if you can

If you’re able, provide an allowance for the animals’ care. Says Nolo:

It’s usually a good idea, even if you think the new owner can easily afford to pay for the dog’s upkeep. A dog who arrives with a full dinner dish is likely to be more welcome than one who is on the dole.

But be careful how you do this. It’s not legal to bequeath money directly to a pet, Nolo says.

You can, however:

  • Leave money to your designated caretaker with a request that it be used for the animal’s care.
  • Leave money to someone else for the dog’s care.

The last option can be useful if the caregiver you’ve chosen is, for example, on a limited income and receiving a sum of money could jeopardize benefits like Supplemental Security Income, or if the caretaker loves animals but has trouble holding onto money.

For more guidance, read funding do’s and don’ts from the ASPCA.

11. But don’t leave too much

Leaving a large sum to a pet isn’t a good idea as it may encourage heirs to challenge your will.

Instead, leave a sum that’s reasonable for food, toys, bowls, beds, vet care and possibly boarding, if you think that may be useful. Estimating the prospective cost of veterinarian care is the difficult part: Some pets require very little medical help; others need thousands of dollars’ worth of care.

The solution may be to simply provide for a good life, including annual exams and any medicines pets currently need, but to leave decisions about treating life-threatening illness or complex treatments to the future caregiver.

12. Establish a pet trust

To make certain your instructions are followed and the money you leave is spent as you wish, establish a pet trust. A trust can be put into effect before an owner’s death or after. You designate someone who will manage the trust and spend the money following your written directions.

As of last year, Nolo cites 46 states and the District of Columbia as having laws allowing pet trusts. (The ASPCA lists these state laws.) Only Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota and Mississippi have no state pet trust laws.

Learn more about pet trusts:

13. Create a pet protection agreement

A $35 do-it-yourself pet protection agreement is a cheaper option that accomplishes much the same job as a pet trust. The agreement form is sold at LegalZoom. No attorney is required, and it doesn’t have the legal heft of a pet trust.

“If a pet owner plans to leave a substantial amount of money for the care of pets or believes that family members may put up a fight, then a formal stand-alone pet trust can be a good option,” LegalZoom says.

14. Learn more

The ASPCA has many articles about aspects of establishing future pet care, including:

Animal lovers, have you taken steps to set up care for your critters in case they outlive you? What have you done? Write your comment below or tell us at Money Talks News’ Facebook page.

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