If you’re like millions of Americans who love their critters, protecting your pets is a top priority. This idea applies in a particular way when it comes to protecting your pets after you pass away. If your pets might outlive you, then looking out for their interests after you’re gone just seems like the right thing to do.
Here at the Blog, we frequently rely on the work of a man named Jim Miller, who not only maintains the popular Savvy Senior website, but who also writes a frequent guest column in a newspaper called The Oklahoman. Recently Miller answered a question from a reader about protecting beloved pets after the owner has passed away. It’s a topic we haven’t covered in a while on the Blog, and since 63 million U.S. households own dogs and 60 million own a cat, we decided to review the subject once again.
Protecting Your Pets: Ensuring Their Care
In Miller’s recent column, a reader named “Solo Senior” asked, “What is the best way to ensure my pets are taken care of after I’m gone? I have two dogs and a cat that are my four-legged family, and I want to make sure they’ll be well taken care of after I die.”
Miller responds that this is a great question, because every year, around half a million dogs and cats end up in shelters when their owners experience a medical emergency or pass away. “Without a proper plan in place for the future care of your pets,” he writes, “they are at risk of ending up in a shelter where they could be euthanized.”
This is a horror story for any loving “pet parent,” but it doesn’t have to be true for you. Miller advises talking to your attorney about including your pets in your estate plan, either by including them in your will or your trust depending on your state laws. Here’s how to get started.
Protecting Your Pet with the Right Language in Your Will
If you already have a will or you’re planning to make one, Miller says that you can simply add in a “trusted caretaker clause” for your pets. Don’t forget to include an alternative name, too, if your first choice falls through for any reason.
Along with this, you should set aside some funds for your pet’s care along with some instructions on how it should be spent. Miller writes, “To determine how much to leave, multiply your pet’s annual food, care and medical costs by their life expectancies. You may want to add a separate document, called a letter of instruction, describing your pet’s routine, food and medication.”
But Miller does add here that this kind of provision in your will is ultimately on the honor system, and “the caretaker is not legally obligated to follow your instructions, spend the money as you intended or send the pet to another caretaker that you’ve named.” So, you need to choose your caretaker wisely and with good communication in advance.
Protecting Your Pet by Setting Up a Trust
If the lack of legal protections in the will worries you, consider setting up a pet trust.
“Depending on your state’s laws (see aspca.org/pet-care/pet-planning/pet-trust-laws), you could set up either a revocable pet trust, which can be changed or canceled during your lifetime, or an irrevocable pet trust that can’t be reversed,” Miller explains. “A pet trust can be completely separate or part of an existing trust that encompasses your other assets.”
Similar to a provision in your will, when you appoint a trustee to manage your trust’s finances you can also name your pet’s caretaker (who could be the same as the trustee), along with any alternatives. You can also add an optional trust protector for added oversight of the trustee, since, as Miller notes, “the beneficiary (your pets) can’t defend their own rights.”
He adds, “Unlike a will, the caretaker has a fiduciary duty to follow your letter of instruction if you include one.”
The cost for a will typically lands between $200 and $1,000, while the cost for a living trust ranges anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000. Miller writes, “There are also cheaper do-it-yourself resources for making a simple will or trust, like Nolo’s Quicken WillMaker & Trust (Nolo.com, $99) and Trust & Will (TrustandWill.com, $159). Or, if that’s more than you’re willing to pay, you can make your will for free at FreeWill.com or DoYourOwnWill.com.”
While do-it-yourself sites are better than nothing, we’re of the strong opinion that talking to a qualified attorney is the best way to guarantee that your intentions will be honored.
Protecting Your Pet by Naming a Trusted Caregiver
We looked at another site with information on this topic: the website of a nationwide pet sanctuary and advocacy group called Best Friends. Here’s what they suggested:
“Ask a few trusted friends or family members to act as emergency caregivers,” the site recommends. “And you’ll want to arrange for more than one caregiver, just in case someone isn’t available. Give them feeding and care instructions for your pets, contact information for your veterinarian and a key to your house.”
The Best Friends website also emphasizes the need for clear communication. “You’ll want to let the rest of your family, friends and loved ones know how many pets you have, and that contact information for your emergency caregivers is available. Keep this contact information in your wallet and somewhere in your home where it’s easy to find.”
Protecting Your Pet: Exploring Other Options
Sadly, not all of us have people in our lives who would be willing to care for our pets after we’re incapacitated or have passed away, so what then?
Miller says that, in that case, you should make arrangements for your pet to be left at an animal retirement home, a rescue, a humane society, pet care program, or other animal welfare group. He concludes, “Many of these organizations find new homes for pets or offer lifetime care but may require a fee or donation. Talk to your veterinarian about the options available in your area.”
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(originally reported at www.oklahoman.com)