Planning for Your Pet’s Care, Should the Worst Happen

PetMD Editorial
Updated: November 28, 2016
Published: July 25, 2016
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As pet owners we have all had, or currently have, that “once in a lifetime pet”; that special pet we will always remember as part of our family and as holders of our hearts. We dread that day we know will someday come, when they are no longer physically with us.

But what if the roles are reversed? What if our pet is left without us? Who will care for our beloved pet? Where will they live? Do we have a backup plan?

Current estimates show that about half of Americans with children have a will, outlining what their wishes are should something happen if both parents pass away or are incapacitated. Far fewer pet owners, about 9 percent, have provisions for their pets’ care, thus leaving about 10 percent of animals in shelters that have been surrendered due to owner death or inability to care for them due to health issues, relocation to assisted living, long-term hospitalization, etc.

So what should pet owners do? Make a plan!

Creating a 'Pet Protection Agreement'

Like most important life decisions, time should be scheduled to think through and plan conversations with friends, family members, or neighbors about what you would want to happen to your furry, feathery, or scaly family member(s). To ensure your wishes are carried out, a written, legal will is the best option; or to be more exact, a “pet protection agreement.”

These legal agreements can be easily made, and is the “layperson’s document … establish(ing) care for companion animals.” Many family attorneys, trusted advisors (accountant, trustee, insurance representative), or even online legal sites can help you prepare this document; you just need to be exact in your final wishes. It does not have to be fancy, expensive, or time consuming, but some thought and planning needs to occur.

A pet protection agreement is valid during your lifetime and beyond, and can help ensure that your wishes are carried out upon your death, or upon physical or mental incapacitation. This pet specific document is designed based on the current laws that pets are considered “property” and takes into account that property disbursements dictated in wills cannot always be legally enforced. Make sure your family, friends, neighbors, and future care takers are aware that you have prepared a will, or that provisions have been made, and that they have access to a copy.

In cases where you wish to set up financial compensation, or a “care trust” for your pet, you should seek the advice of a lawyer who is familiar with wills and trusts. Most family law offices are capable of working in provisions for pets and will be able to guide you on logistics and state laws.

Finding a Trustworthy Care-Giver for Your Pet

In July of 2004 I adopted my “once in a lifetime” pet. Grace the cat came to me after she was rejected by her mother; she needed bottle feeding and around-the-clock care. I began to look at the tiny fur ball as my own fur-baby, and soon my family accepted her as such. It terrifies me that one day she will not be with me. I know the average lifespan of cats and I know that someday we must say goodbye. But being a single woman, I do wonder what would become of Gracie if I were in a life altering accident or, worse, passed away? Would my parents or brother be willing to take her in and continue caring for her? Would she go to a close friend? Would she end up in a shelter, where as a “senior” cat her chances of adoption are low?

Ideally, pet owners should first have a conversation with family and close friends they feel will be willing and able to care for their pet(s). The conversation should not only consist of asking them if they are willing to take care of your pet, but spelling out what your wishes are for your pet’s continued care. This conversation should be an evolving, open line of discussion, with back-up plans and a formal agreement.

Keep in mind that just because your family member or friend says they are willing to care for Fido or Fluffy does not mean that their life style or circumstances won’t change, prohibiting them from fulfilling your wishes. Keep lines of communication open and have a backup plan to your backup plan!

Make Sure Your Vet Knows Your Plan

Informing your veterinarian (who has your authority to make medical decisions) and leaving written instructions on file will also be beneficial. This way, your vet will be able to act upon any immediate health concerns your pet may have while permanent options are being worked out. Most vets will only need a written letter kept on file, informing them of your decision and listing who you have chosen to act as caregiver.