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Adding Fido To Your Will

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All too often, when a person dies, the survivors are consumed by the grief of the loss and other personal matters that the pet gets literally lost in the shuffle. So it's important to make specific plans ahead of time.

Saturday Early Show resident veterinarian, Dr. Debbye Turner says it is not enough just to ask a friend to take care of Fido when you are gone. It is best to make specific arrangements in a legal document, like a will or trust.

Identify the person or organization that you would like to take care of your pet. Get their agreement. Then put the appropriate language in a will or letter with the their signature and yours.

Get a legal professional to guide you through this process to ensure that when the time comes, your wishes are carried out properly.

When identifying the caregiver, choose someone who loves animals. It is a very good idea to choose someone who has a relationship with the pet, like a spouse, child, parent, neighbor, best friend, etc.

If you have more than one pet, it is best to keep them together. So you'll have to make sure that your designated caregiver is willing to take both or all of your pets.

Talk to the caregiver about all that is involved in caring for your pet (special medical attention, walking, training, housing), and what your expectations and wishes are. This person must be willing to give the same level of care that you provided for your pet. If they are hesitant, or not as serious about this as you are, move on to find someone else. Also, it's a good idea to find a second (maybe even third) possible caregiver in the event that your primary pick is no longer living at the time your wishes need to be carried out.

Carry an "animal card" in your purse or wallet so that in the event something happens there is notification that an animal is at home in need of care.

Have a sign on your front door indicating that an animal lives inside. This is especially important for firefighters and other emergency personnel that may need to enter your home in an emergency.

Leave specific care instructions for your pet with your estate planning documents to increase the likelihood that the animal is properly cared for after your death.

Wills and Trusts

There are a number of options for providing for your pet after your death. You can include a provision in your will, or create a pet trust. There are some things that you want to avoid if you make a provision for your pet in your will.

  • Don't just proclaim a large amount of money to be left for the pet. By law, pets in the United States are considered property and therefore cannot be bequeathed money. Plus any of your heirs who object to your wishes could contest this bequest in court, and could very well get a judge to overrule your wishes if they are deemed unreasonable.
  • There are many states now that have statutes that allow enforcement of pet trusts. So setting up a trust for your pet may be the best way to go for you. When setting up a pet trust, you will need to identify at least one trustee (who will distribute the money) and one beneficiary (who will provide the care to your pet) to carry out your wishes. This provides a checks-and-balances system, so that in the event that the beneficiary (pet caregiver) is not properly providing for the pet, the trustee can step in, discontinue payment, and find another caregiver.

    The trustee can be an organization, business, or individual. The caregiver should love animals and even have an affinity for your pet.

  • The trust should contain specific instructions on how to properly care for your pet, such as feeding, walking, grooming, frequency of veterinary visits, housing, even burial upon the pet's death.
  • When determining the amount to put in trust for the care of your pet, you must take many factors into consideration, including the type of animal, life expectancy of the pet, costs for food, grooming, veterinary care and boarding. You should also provide additional money to cover emergency costs, and a stipend for the caregiver (if agreed upon). Just remember that an excessively large sum of money left for the pet may invite other heirs to challenge the trust in court. So it is important to fund the trust with what a court of law would consider "reasonable" if contested.
  • It is important to clearly identify your pet in the trust documents. There are organizations that provide genetic identification so that there are no questions. There have been cases where beneficiaries have purchased a new animal upon the death of the first pet in order to continue collecting benefits from the trust.
  • Not all states in the U.S. have statutes that allow enforcement of pet trusts, so be sure to check the code in your state to make sure your document is legally viable.
  • There are a number of places to get a sample (or guideline) trust to help you in creating one for your pet. This is a good place to start if you don't want to go to the expense of hiring a lawyer. Check the Humane Society of the United States, PetGuardian, and Professor Beyer Web sites for samples and more information.
  • To use a private lawyer to draw up a trust for your pet could cost any where from a few hundred to a couple of thousand of dollars. PetGuardian will walk you through their process for a cost of $500.

Animal Shelters
There are dozens and dozen of shelters and animal sanctuaries that will provide care for your pet after your death. Check with your local humane society or SPCA for reputable ones in your area. However, this might not be your best option. If your pet is accustomed to living in a home with individual care and attention, living the rest of its life in a shelter environment could be quite stressful for the animal.

But if you choose to have a shelter or sanctuary take your pet in after your death, there are some organizations that specialize in caring for the pets of deceased people.

It is important that you visit the premises. Make sure it is the type of environment in which your pet can thrive. You'll want to see where your pet would be housed, plus ask how much he will be socialized, exercised, and checked by a veterinarian. Find out what that organization's policy is about finding a home for its resident animals because the cost of caring for a pet over the long-term can be quite expensive. Know that there is little funding streams for many animal shelters and sanctuaries, choose a place that has a long, successful track record with stable revenue sources (or as stable as possible).

Other Options
If you do not have a specific person or organization with whom you'd like your pet to live, then you can instruct the executor of your will to find an appropriate new home for your pet. Be sure to state your wishes for the type of living situation and family are appropriate for your pet (i.e. No small children, has a yard, etc.) If you are adamant that you do not want your animals to go to a shelter or sanctuary, then make that wish clearly known in your will. Be sure to set aside money to cover the cost of temporary shelter for your pet while the executor finds a new home.

Just like other aspects of a will, you should update the information about your wishes for your pets as your circumstances change. You will want to add pets that you have acquired and of course remove pet's names of those who have died. Also check with your caregivers and alternates from time to time to make sure they are still willing and able to carry out your wishes.

While it may take some time and effort to find the right place for your pet after you are gone, it can be done. There is rarely reason to request euthanasia for your pet after your death. This request may be deemed invalid, particularly if your pet is relatively young and in good health. Perhaps the only circumstance where euthanasia is best is when the pet is too old or infirm to experience a good quality of life.