It is shocking how often I receive heart-breaking pleas to help find homes for pets whose owners have died or have become incapacitated. According to the website of the ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), “… approximately 5 to 7 million companion animals enter animal shelters nationwide each year, and approximately 3 to 4 million are euthanized (60 percent of dogs and 70 percent of cats). As a responsible guardian, it is important to think about who would care for your pets in the event of your inability, illness, or even death, and to implement a plan to prevent your pets from ending up in a shelter where their future remains uncertain.”
In researching this article, I had a lovely chat with George Fox of Fox & Mattson, P.C. Mr. Fox does a great deal of work with estate planning, the writing of Wills, etc., and he kindly provided his time and expertise to help us pet owners ensure the welfare of our precious, furry family members.
Georgia is one of the states that honor a Pet Trust. A Pet Trust is a legally sanctioned document that provides for the care and maintenance of pets. The arrangements specified in a Pet Trust may take effect in the event of the owner’s death or in the event that the owner is incapacitated due to illness or injury. This legal arrangement typically includes funding for the pet’s care, but such funding is not required. Mr. Fox, however, cautions that a Pet Trust isn’t a “cure all” for providing for your pets, because if they aren’t being cared for, they can’t complain to anyone to enforce their rights under the Trust.
The safest way to protect your pets is to make provisions in your Last Will & Testament. You may specify an individual (with that person’s prior agreement, of course!) who will adopt your pet, and you may include a specific amount of money from your estate to be provided for the pet’s future veterinary and other needs. Mr. Fox suggests adding a second care-taker, a “back-up” person, in case the primary individual changes his/her mind or cannot honor the agreement for some reason when the time comes. It may also be possible to stipulate a rescue organization that will accept your pet, but you must make such arrangements (in writing!) with the rescue organization before naming that group in your Will.
It is certainly legal to put your pet in your Will, but you can’t name them as a direct beneficiary (other than through a Trust, as described above).
Another issue concerning Wills is that they take effect only in the case of death. If a pet owner were disabled or incapacitated, the terms of the Will have no bearing on the welfare of the pets.
Mr. Fox recommends that at the very least, cover your pet’s physical and financial care in a Power of Attorney which will apply if you are disabled, incapacitated, etc.
Again, no one wants to think about death or other life-changing catastrophes, but accidents do happen, and it is so important to take a little time and make sure that those animals who give so much to us and who are totally dependent on us are going to be well-cared for if the unforeseen were to happen. I certainly don’t want to think about dying, but looking at my beloved Bama and imagining him in a cage at a shelter or being posted on the Internet in search of a loving home has made me begin talking to close friends and writing up an agreement to ensure that my precious dog will never have to depend on the kindness of strangers.
If you would like more information about making arrangements for the care of your pets, Mr. Fox has graciously said that I may provide his contact information. And you may want to begin by going to the ASPCA website to get an overview of the numerous aspects to be considered.