I Died Today...And Here's Why My Pets Will Be Okay
We would never intentionally abandon our pets. We are those owners who have 500 photos of our pets on our phones. Our pets have Instagram accounts. Our vets know us because we are on top of preventative care and make the 2am phone calls to the answering service for tummy troubles. (Yep, I did it. I thought it was bloat!) The thought of not coming home to them is unthinkable, but the reality is, sometimes owners don't come home. Tragic accidents and medical emergencies can keep owners from their pets for short periods or forever. We owe it to our pets to plan for their future.
From chinchillas to dogs to horses, our pets are unique in so many ways. As their humans, we know their quirks, likes and dislikes, dietary requirements, and personalities. Thor can't have treats or he throws up. Libby takes a long time to warm up to new people so don't push her. Petey must have his teddy bear stuffy when he sleeps at night. Spot has to wear a muzzle around other dogs. Millie has mega-E and has to eat in a Bailey chair. These things are second nature to us, but does your family know? Do your friends know? If someone was going to adopt or re-home your pet, do they know enough? How do we do our very best to make sure our pet is taken care of if we can't be there for them?
Even if you're just going on vacation, planning for pet-related emergencies is a must. It is helpful to notify your vet that you'll be out of town and that certain people are authorized to make healthcare decisions for your pet. While pets are not people, most vets would be hesitant to treat or not treat based on the request of a random person. This could be particularly important if you'll be vacationing in areas where cell phone communication is limited or non-existent.
Additionally, most vets require payment at the time of treatment. While I have seen this practice denounced as unethical, veterinarians, like all businesses, have overhead and mouths to feed. As responsible pet owners, we should plan ahead for when we can't be there to make immediate payment. Having a discussion with your pet's caregivers and your vet about reimbursement or billing will help ensure your pet gets the care she needs in your absence.
If people have human children, the subject of estate planning is always seen as important. Who will take care of the kids? How will we make sure they have the funds to care for them? Estate planning for pets; however, is often overlooked. An important distinction in estate planning is that pets, in most states, are considered property. This means that a court does not have to look out for their best interest during the probate of an estate. Many animals find themselves at shelters and in rescues because, upon the death of the owner, there is no plan in place for the pet and family is not willing or able to take on the responsibilities.
The thought of re-homing our dogs makes me sick. Not only are they our furry children, I also know that our girls have some difficult behavioral issues that will make it hard to find them the right home. It really scares me that they would end up somewhere that doesn't understand them and doesn't treat them with kindness on their bad days. Whether you designate someone to responsibly re-home your dogs and make decisions for them in the interim or you have someone that has agreed to take your pets upon your death, either will go a long ways to helping responsibly re-home your pets.
If you will need someone to find them a new home, it would probably be helpful to note dietary and behavior quirks and even what commands they know. For example, our girl Nessie is a reactive girl and moreso on the leash. I would not want her placed in a home that didn't understand that unique part of her personality because...well...it can be terrifying and exhausting if you're not prepared for it. Overall, she is a smart, high drive German Shepherd Dog that is not suited to just any home. By contrast, our boy Ruger could probably fit in almost anywhere these days. He's an easygoing boy who is your best friend if you have food.
Pets can be expensive. Some more than others. I often hear my friends who own horses refer to being "horse poor." Vetting and providing food and preventatives to four large breed dogs is also not cheap. The costs of pet ownership can be prohibitive and can prevent amazing homes from owning pets. Ensuring financial security for your pet's welfare is a big step towards opening more doors to suitable homes and making sure your pet receives everything you want it to in life including toys and beds and all the amenities that go with Spoiled Pet Life.
Most states now allow pet trusts. These trusts are enforceable by the courts - meaning if the caregiver isn't using the money properly, the court can intervene - and provide for the care of your pet after your death. Trusts can be tricky things, but are easy enough if set up by professionals. Trusts can be funded by you during your lifetime or they can be set up to be funded by assets of your estate. You will need to appoint a trustee - this is someone who is not the caregiver - and discuss how you want funds to be disbursed. (For any reason? For food and medical? A monthly disbursement?) It is always advisable to consult an estate planning attorney when setting up trusts because estate law changes by the minute and varies by state. There are also tax considerations for trusts that should be discussed with tax and estate planning professionals.
Also, keep in mind that depending on the type of trust you set up, you may or may not avoid probate. This means there may be no funds to immediately give to those caring for your pets. Probating an estate can be quick or could take a year or more if there are objections or things that the courts must decide on. Consider addressing any issues of reimbursement for expenses incurred from the time of your death to the time the trust is able to do its job or your estate can be distributed. Again, an estate planning professional can help you sort out the most efficient way to distribute your property and provide for your pets.
PLEASE HAVE THE DISCUSSION
None of us want to think this could happen, but it does. Every day. This article is a very brief overview of considerations for pet owners and is by no means comprehensive. It is also not any form of legal advice. Each person's situation is unique, but I hope that you are now thinking of ways to plan for your pet's future in the event you cannot be there.
We want what is best for our pets and it's easy to forget that one day we might not be here to care for them. The best thing we can do for them is to make sure that no matter where we are, they get the love and care they deserve.