A trip to OC Animal Services leads you to the love of your life: a beautiful mixed-breed pup. You figure a bit of training, some puppy-proofing of the house, and you're all set. Right? Not quite.
If you die or become ill, who will take care of your dog? Every year, countless canines face a bleak future when they are turned into animal shelters because their owners are no longer alive or well enough to care for them.
This doesn’t have to be the case. By planning for your dog’s care and well being now, you can rest assured he will be taken care of in case you are no longer able to do so.
“That gives you such peace of mind,” says Elenora L. Benz, a Newton, N.J.-based attorney and author of the New Jersey pet trust legislation. She is also a founding member of the Animal Law Committee of the New Jersey State Bar Assoc. “If dog owners would do that, it would simplify things.”
The first thing everyone should do, regardless of age or health status, is to appoint a trusted friend or family member as caregiver. Pick someone who likes dogs, has room to own one, knows your pet well and is willing to keep “siblings” together. Choose a back-up guardian, too. According to the Washington, D.C.-based Humane Society of the United States, both parties should be given keys to your house, feeding/care instructions, copies of veterinary records and information about any permanent provisions you’ve made for your dog.
Every so often, check in with your appointed caregivers to make sure their lives haven’t changed radically, disabling them from taking your dog.
“[Owners] must keep updating this information,” says Patricia Kauffman, manager of the HSUS’ Humane Legacy and “Providing for Your Pet’s Future Without You.”
“Communication is always key,” adds Benz. If it’s lacking, “that’s when [dogs] end up at shelters.”
But don’t rely on an unenforceable and unable-to-prove verbal agreement to secure your dog’s future.
“The place you want to do that is in a legal document,” says Benz, especially if it’s not a close relative assuming responsibility for your dog. “When you’ve got family members who are willing to do that, you don’t have as many hoops to jump [through]. They’re going to spend their own money to [take care of your dog].”
When there is no family member, “that’s when you want to get more formal.”
Such as wills and pet trusts. A will is a document that you write during your life, but is not enforced until you die. A trust is a document, signed by you and your trustee, that can be enforced during or after your lifetime. A will goes through probate. A trust does not. Both need to be created through experienced attorneys versed in this aspect of the law.
In a will, you can outline caregiver plans and any financial-disbursement instructions from your estate. But since wills have certain drawbacks (i.e.: they take time to execute), people in certain states opt for legal pet trust funds.
The ASPCA explains how, in a trust, an appointed trustee will hold cash “in trust” for the dog, with payments made to the designated caregiver throughout the life of the pet. You can outline exactly how your dog will be cared for after you’re gone: vet visits every six months, grooming appointments each week, prescription-only food, daily walks.
Check with your state attorney general, a private attorney or call the HSUS at 1-800-808-7858 to see if your state allows pet trusts. The Orange County-based Morgan Law Group offers many great articles on the subject.
Benz suggests that even with a will or trust, you should have discretionary funds set aside and a temporary, “just-in-case” caregiver who can care for your dog immediately while the legal issues are settled.
One other step every owner should take is to carry a wallet emergency card, letting people know that there are dogs waiting for you at home in case you’re injured or incapacitated. List contact info for your appointed or temporary caregiver (like a trusted neighbor who knows your dog and how to access your house), as well as your veterinarian’s number.
You can contact the Humane Society of the United States to get the free kit, "Providing for your Pet's Future Without You." Write to them at Humane Society of the United States, 2100 L St. NW, Washington, D.C., 20037, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Phone: 202-452-1100. Website: www.hsus.org/ace/19993.
The HSUS website provides sample language to use when writing up a will. See the article at http://www.hsus.org/ace/15261