You might consider your pets “fur children,” but if you’re incapacitated or you die, the law will beg to differ. With actual children, the urgency of ensuring a smooth handover to a designated guardian is always recognized. Pets, in contrast, are considered property.
But your dog can’t wait in a safety deposit box for a will to be probated–and you can’t assume that, because your good pal Dave has always liked your pup, he’ll be pleased to take permanent custody.
What to do?
The best of intentions can’t prevent informal arrangements, even those promising remuneration, from falling apart. To ensure that your dog will be cared for in case of your long-time distraction or demise:
- Choose a permanent caregiver
- Put your wishes in writing
- Put your money where your mouth is.
A will or trust that clarifies a caretaker’s responsibilities and specifies compensation is hard — though not impossible — to wiggle out of.
- Start with assigning a temporary guardian, who will serve as a transition to your designated long-term caregiver. See my previous post for details about how to choose that guardian and make your wishes known.
- Work with an attorney to draw up a special will, trust, or other document to provide for the care and ownership of your pet as well as the money necessary to care for her. That attorney needs to know the laws regarding pet dispensation in your state and, preferably, should have a pet. Try not to be speciesist. Many good attorneys have cats rather than dogs.
- If you live in one of the 37 states that allow for the establishment of a pet trust — check AnimalLaw.com regarding this and other pet legal issues — this is your best option. It eliminates the need to wait until your will is probated for the guardianship arrangement to take effect. A living trust might be even better, as it allows you to arrange for the guardianship to kick in before you kick off (say, if you’re in a coma for more than a month).
The comprehensive “Providing for Your Pet’s Future Without You” section of the Humane Society’s website goes into greater detail.
CHOOSING A PERMANENT CAREGIVER
As with temporary arrangements, choose people who like and have cared for pets in general and your pet in particular.
Of course, there are no guarantees of compliance if circumstances change, so keep in close touch with your designated guardian. My best friend, Clare, agreed long ago to take Frankie in if anything should happen to me, but after he was diagnosed with diabetes I asked her again. She assured me that nothing had changed, and I believe her. It doesn’t hurt that Clare is the executor of my estate and therefore will be in charge of my money, and that, although she is the most lapsed Catholic I know, she’s aware that she will go to hell if Frankie should be made unhappy.
Speaking of which, if you’re convinced that your dog will be so distraught when you die that he needs to be euthanized, and you include a clause to that effect in your will, there’s a good chance that it will not stand up in court. And that you will go to hell.