Many of my clients love their pets like they are children, but I wonder what percentage of them have made provisions for their pets’ care should they (the owners not the pets) die unexpectedly. Not many, I’d guess. I haven’t either, but I’m going to change that as soon as my husband and I update our wills this summer.

Think about it. What would happen to your pets if you were suddenly out of the picture? Most of us probably assume that a family member or friend would step in and do whatever was needed. But without proper preparation, that is a lot to ask, and who’s to say that the person that does end up with your pets is going to treat them the way you want them to be treated?

I recently heard about a tragic case here in Fort Collins that occurred after a pet owner died unexpectedly. He didn’t have friends or family in the area and by the time word of his death reached the people in town who knew he had cats that he loved deeply, his pets had already been transported to the local "shelter" and euthanized after the legal wait time, thereby compounding the tragedy.

You can prevent something like this from happening to your pets by including them in your estate planning. I’m no lawyer, but here are a few of the basics:

  1. Mention in your will where you want your pets to go. Of course, you should first confirm that your pet’s new owner or sheltering organization will be willing to take on this responsibility. Also, know that just because your will states that your sister will get your cat, it in no way mandates that she take good care of said cat. Also, there is always a delay (sometimes a lengthy one) between a person’s death and their will being enacted. This isn’t a big deal if you are giving your cousin your flat-screen TV but does have to be factored in with animals.
  2. Consider setting up a trust for your pet. This may conjure up images of Leona Helmsley, but trusts don’t need to involve millions of dollars. You can set aside a reasonable amount of money for the care of your pets (even funding it with a portion of an insurance policy, retirement account, etc.) and designate someone to disburse funds for their care. The person in charge of the money doesn’t have to be (and probably shouldn’t be) the same person or organization that is the pet’s guardian. Don’t be concerned that your money will be wasted if your pet dies before the money runs out. You can designate one or more beneficiaries for any funds that are left over.

The peace of mind in knowing that you’ve provided for your pets needs in case of your death is worth the time and expense of consulting with a lawyer who is knowledgeable about how to include pets in estate plans.

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Image: Graveyard Dog by Richard Gould / via Flickr