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Even though the lifespan of a pet is usually shorter than a human’s, it’s still critically important for the long-term welfare of your animals that you plan for pet care after your death, illness, or need for long-term care.

As a responsible pet owner, you owe it to your pets to address, plan, and organize what would happen to your pets if you died unexpectedly, became seriously injured or ill, or have to go into assisted living.

To add to this, single people are one of the fastest growing demographic groups at virtually all adult age groups. This sometimes means that many people have no family, which makes it even more important to organize & set a plan for pet care after your death.

This Pet Parent Guide To Pet Care After Your Death covers how to make sure your pets have a safe place to land in the event of your death, disability, or need to go into a long-term care facility.

PET CARE AFTER YOUR DEATH: INCLUDE PLANS FOR YOUR PETS IN YOUR WILL
The first step in making sure your pets have a safe place to land after your death or need to go into assisted living is to have a will. Regardless of your age, everyone should have a will that clearly designates what happens to your assets in the event of your passing. This is especially important if you have pets.

In your will, you should gain agreement in advance about who’s taking care of your pets, or taking charge of re-homing them in the event of your unexpected death or entry into assisted living.

Pet owners can’t leave their estate to their pets, but you can use provisions in your will to make sure that your pets get consistent, quality care for the rest of their lives.

Obviously you must consult with an attorney for these matters, but here are some basic steps to take:

  • Designate a pet guardian in your will (short-term & long-term)
  • Set aside money for veterinary bills, vaccinations, food & meds through a will or a pet trust
  • Set aside “transition funds” for your pet’s care
  • Choose a re-homing option

The following sections address these activities in more detail.

PET CARE AFTER YOUR DEATH: DESIGNATING A PET GUARDIAN OR CARETAKER
As part of including what happens to your pets in your will, the first step is to designate a pet guardian. A pet guardian is the person you designate to immediately take custody of your pet in the event of your unexpected death or disability.

Your designated pet guardian may be the person who cares for your pets for the rest of their lives.

Your designated pet guardian also may be the person who takes temporary custody of your pets to get them to the designated place of safety as dictated in your will.

Possible pet guardians could include:

  • The executor of your will
  • A trusted family member
  • A trusted friend
  • Your pet’s breeder if you have pure-bred pets
  • A breed-specific pet rescue organization
  • An animal welfare organization or shelter that has a program in place for taking custody of pets whose owners have died or become incapacitated.

To determine the best pet guardian, do not make assumptions, i.e. ASK the potential pet guardian in advance if they are willing to take temporary or permanent custody of your pets and set the agreement up well in advance. If there’s any “waffling,” with people who don’t really want the responsibility, find someone who gladly agrees to take temporary custody of your pets and to follow the instructions you’ve placed in your will.

If no one is available to take care of your pets in the event of your unexpected passing, there are reputable non-profit organizations such as the Denver Dumb Friends League that have formal programs for taking custody of your pets and working to re-home them in safe forever homes, especially for single folks with no family or no friends who can be a pet guardian. (See more detail later in this guide about this.)

Special Note: It’s not enough to get a verbal agreement from some friend that they would take care of your pet. You’ll need to get agreement in writing for your pet’s care, and formally, legally designate your plans in a will.

In addition, it’s important to have a back-up plan. For example, what if your designated pet guardian has unexpected physical, mental, financial, medical, or family issues that prevent them from being able to care for your pet? Have a back-up plan with formal agreements that are cemented in your will on what happens if your primary pet guardian is unable to fulfill their duties.

Work up a game plan that clearly states:

  • Pet Guardian 1
  • Pet Guardian 2
  • Pet Guardian 3

You also will need to stay in touch with these designated caregivers and the backup caregivers. Life circumstances can change, and it’s important to update the instructions in your pet care plan in your will if someone is no longer able to fulfill the pet guardianship requirements.

Tips on choosing a good pet guardian include:

  • Is the pet guardian a reliable, responsible, honest person?
  • Does the guardian have experience caring for pets in general?
  • Does the designated guardian already know your pets?
  • Is the pet guardian willing to take your bonded pets as a group, or will the animals be split up?
  • Does the designated pet guardian have the physical, mental & emotional capabilities for caring for your pets?
  • Does the designated pet guardian live in a residence that allows pets, and does that residence have a safe, fenced backyard?

PET CARE AFTER YOUR DEATH: SETTING ASIDE FUNDS FOR PET CARE

While you can’t directly bequeath your estate to your pets, you can certainly set aside money for the care of your pets. There are specific ways to do this to ensure that the money is actually used to care for your pet.

Leaving huge sums of money for your pets often is challenged in court, according to the New York Bar Association. But setting aside reasonable sums that cover the anticipated expenses for annual vet care, pet food, vaccinations & potential medical emergencies can be done, often without a challenge from family members or heirs.

Beware that just giving money to someone for the care of your pet doesn’t guarantee the money will be spent on the pet. If you want to ensure that money set aside for your pet is actually spent on your pet, setting up a pet trust is another option.

A pet trust is related but separate from your will, and can be used for your pet’s care if you die, and also if you become ill or incapacitated. In this case, a designated trustee can manage the funds and direct the funds toward veterinary care, pet food, vaccinations, etc. Of note, since individual circumstances and financials vary greatly from pet parent to pet parent, consult with your attorney about the best way to ensure your pets are cared for, and that the money you set aside for them is actually spent on your pet’s needs. Keep in mind that trusts can be expensive to set up and maintain.

Once you’ve set up a will and/or a pet trust, make sure that the designated pet guardian has a copy and schedule time to brief them in person about what you want, too.

PET CARE AFTER YOUR DEATH: SETTING ASIDE TRANSITIONAL FUNDS
If your financial affairs & assets need to be handled through probate court, there will be a delay in getting money for your pet’s care by your designated pet guardian. In this case, you may want to set up up some transitional funds that are available immediately for your pet’s care & feeding. You can do this by setting a specific provision in your will that allows your executor to use funds from your estate while your will is going through probate court.

PET CARE AFTER YOUR DEATH: DESIGNATING A LONG-TERM PET CARE ORGANIZATION
It’s more and more common these days that people have no family left, or friends able to take care of their pets in the event of their death, injury, or incapacitation. As a result, a number of animal welfare groups have developed programs to take custody of animals with nowhere to land after their owner has died or been placed into assisted living.

As an example, the Denver Dumb Friends League has introduced a pet guardianship program. Through this program, you can designate the Dumb Friends League as a temporary guardian for pets that outlive you. The DDFL’s Pet Guardianship program applies for cats, dogs, certain birds, and small mammals. In those instances, pets of deceased owners, or pets of people who have to go into assisted living, are picked up by trusted DDFL staff members, brought to the DDFL shelter for initial care and feeding, and then placed in a volunteer foster home until a new forever home can be found for them. During this time, the DDFL also provides access to veterinary medical care, vaccines & more, to ensure your pet is healthy before she’s introduced to a new forever home. Learn more about the Denver Dumb Friends League’s Pet Guardianship Program

A note of caution: If you’re going to will your pet to an organization, make sure it’s a reputable, 501c3 nonprofit in operation for many years. There are plenty of horror stories of informal “animal rescues” or “sanctuaries” run by animal hoarders or people without business management experience. In many sad cases, animals at informal “rescues” have had to be confiscated by animal control officers for malnutrition and neglect.

If you’re going to leave your pet in the care of an organization, do the following research:

  • How long has the organization been in operation?
  • Do they have a formal 501c3 non-profit designation?
  • Is the program licensed?
  • What happens if the program can’t continue?
  • How much attention does each animal receive daily?
  • What’s the financial commitment required for each pet?
  • How do the animals live? Are they in cages? Free-roaming?
  • Are the pets adopted out with a thorough vetting process? Or are the animals kept on-site for the duration of their live?
  • What types of food will be served, how much and how often?
  • How are medical needs handled?
  • How much exercise do the animals get?

PET CARE AFTER YOUR DEATH: LOGISTICS TO MAKE THE TRANSITION EASIER FOR YOUR PETS
In addition to making sure that your pets land in a safe place in the event of your untimely death, incapacitation or having to go into assisted living, you also can organize information to help minimize stress for your bereaved pets. Here’s a simple checklist of information to gather into one place about your pets:

  • General Information (name, breed & age)
  • Breeding (Pedigree papers)
  • Veterinary & Medical Records (general information about your pet’s health, conditions such as diabetes or hip dysplasia, etc. and the veterinary clinic where their medical records are located)
  • Daily Medications Information (If your pet’s on daily medications, indicate the medications & dosages)
  • Pet Food Details (To ease any potential gastric distress, list the specific pet food that your pet eats, the portion sizes, and how frequently they eat.)
  • Training Details (List your pet’s training: are they obedience trained to a specific level? What verbal commands do they know?)
  • General Likes & Dislikes (If your pet is scared of thunderstorms or fireworks, has specific needs of when they need to take a potty break, or has a specific routine of what they like or dislike, be sure to document this.)

The bottom line is that part of any responsible pet owner’s job is to make sure that your pets will be cared for in an orderly, organized process in the event of your death, injury, illness, incapacitation, or need to go into assisted living. This pet transition guide is designed to help you plan for pet care after your death, and make sure your pets land in a safe place.

If you’re planning your will, are ill, or thinking you’ll be needing assisted living in the near future, be sure to discuss long-term care options with your veterinarian during your pet’s annual exam or veterinary visit. Contact Mile High Animal Hospital of Aurora, or call us at 303.693.6484 if you need to schedule an annual exam or a long-term care plan for your pets.

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