Mum called up the other day, talking about her recent drive south to ride her horse in sunnier climes with some old friends. While driving, a relative had called, asking for some advice. One of their friends was in rather desperate medical circumstances and was looking for homes for his dogs, cats, and horses, but was at a loss on what to do and looking for some help. Sadly, this is not an uncommon request, but it is one with which we must deal.
As pet owners, we know that our four-legged (or finned or shelled or feathered) friends will generally have much shorter life spans than we will and that we will often be the ones that left behind. This will not always be the case, however, as accidents and disasters happen. Responsible pet ownership and livestock guardianship should not stop with death. Dealing with end-of-life issues is hard enough, but trying to find care for multiple, beloved animals while facing one’s own death is even harder.
This blog post is a bit longer than usual because it covers wide-ranging, important topics. Additionally, I have covered only small companion animals, namely dogs and cats, as well as livestock, such as horses. This is not to negate the companionship that other animals provide, but as I am covering the most common animals that we see coming into mixed-practice veterinary clinics. Much of what I write about here could be applied to birds, which can be remarkably long-lived as well as hamsters, fish, guinea pigs, and the like.
Planning It Out
Many people do not like talking about their death. They find it morbid, creepy, and a bit odd that it is an event for which you must plan. But there are two realities in life: death and taxes, both of which can be made slightly more graceful with some planning and foresight.
A handshake agreement is just like it sounds: an informal agreement between two people. Mum and one of the neighbors up the road have just such an agreement in place regarding his horses in the event of his death or incapacitation. It is simply a letter stating that in the event of death, she has agreed to care for his horses. (Suggestion: have this letter notarized. This is a small, practical step, but one that may save some amount of headache later on.) Please note that this is not a legal agreement, but simply an example of an owner making his or her wishes known.
Erin Thrash is an attorney in Lakeway, Texas, who specializes in estate planning. When helping a person to create their estate plans, she said, “I do require pet owners to be responsible.” As part of the homework that a person or family completes as part of the estate plan, there is a section on the disposition of animals, asking for animals to be listed and described, emergency care and contact information, and caretakers for those animals in the event of the owner’s death.
Patrick Stanley, a healthcare and estate attorney in Scottsdale, Arizona, provides nearly identical advice. He advises that owners “Specifically identify the animal in the trust document as well as have someone in place to take care of animal, and make sure that person understands their obligations and agrees to care for the animal.” Additionally, he and his clients talk through what that animal’s needs might be, will the caregiver be able to provide for that animal, is the trust properly funded, has it been stipulated what the pet trust will/will not pay for, and what will happen with leftover money from trust.
For animals that are cared for as part of a trust, make certain to denote any registration papers or insurance documentation associated with the animals as part of the trust paperwork. This small but crucial step can save a lot of headache for all involved.
For those thinking that this kind of foresight might be overkill, consider this. Depending on state law, paramedics may be required to take animals left unattended in a house to a shelter. Some shelters do not euthanize animals, but some are forced to do so as they have little room, if any.
When I began writing this article, I posted on Facebook that I was looking to talk to someone that had made long-term care plans for animals but were not relying on friends or family to do so. A friend in Texas named Kay responded, saying that she and her husband had set up long-term care for their cats and dogs through a state veterinary school. When I asked Kay why she and her husband had taken this proactive, far-reaching step, she said, “By doing this and setting it up, it provided us with a peace of mind. By setting something in place, if worst happens, then we have the peace of mind that our pets–which are like children to us–have been provided for.”
Universities, particularly universities with veterinary schools, may have long-term care programs. Examples of this can be found at Texas A&M University, the Stevenson Companion Animal Life-Care Center, as well as Kansas State University’s Perpetual Pet Care Program. Enrollment fees are required as well as a memorandum of understanding in a will, leaving a set amount of money to provide care for an animal throughout its life. This is not an inexpensive option, but it is a solid, bullet-proof way to ensure that an animal will have quality of life without being a burden on family, friends, or animal shelters.
If you feel that you cannot find a suitable home for an animal, there are animal shelters and rescue groups available in many cities. Please know, however, that many of these organizations are at capacity, and they may not be able to guarantee that your animals will not be euthanized. If you do opt to have one of these organizations care for your animal, providing a suitable amount of monetary funds for long-term care would be both ethical and advisable.
What to Do Next
- Determine who can provide short-term care for your animals in case of an emergency. This may entail conversations with neighbors, your veterinarian, or boarding facilities. Document this information and distribute it to relevant parties.
- Determine long-term care for your animals in the event of your death. This may involve changes to your existing estate plan or trust, or it may be that you need to create such long-term planning.
- For animals such as dogs, cats, house rabbits, fish, birds, rats, guinea pigs, hamsters, and the like, complete emergency cards with information such as how many animals you have and an up-to-date emergency contact of a person that will provide short-term care for such animals in your absence. Laminate that card and place it in easy-to-find places like the refrigerator, near a medicine cabinet, or a bathroom mirror. You should also carry this card in your wallet or purse. An example of this card is shown below.
Blog posts such as this require a greater amount of research and specialized knowledge in order to provide accurate, relevant information. Many people gave generously of their time, expertise, and knowledge to help me create this blog post, and for that I am grateful.
- Jerry Gereghty–Mr. Gereghty is a rancher in southern Montana. He and mum–and me, whenever I’m found up north–often ride together. He talked me through the common-sense, handshake-agreement example of care for his horses in the event of his death.
- Kay Harold–Ms. Harold is a retired medical technician and librarian, and she previously owned a veterinary clinic. She did the heavy lifting for research into university-based veterinary programs that provide care as part of endowments and trusts.
- Patrick Stanley–Mr. Stanley is an attorney with Comitz and Beethe in Scottsdale, Arizona, specializing in healthcare and estate planning. His clear, easy-to-understand examples gave me a much better understanding of how trusts operate. He can be found at www.cobelaw.com.
- Erin Thrash–Ms. Thrash is an attorney in Lakeway, Texas, and specializes in estate planning, trusts, and probate work. She generously provided the example for disposition of care for animals, and her foresight is commendable. She can be reached through www.thrashlawfirm.com.
The feature image for this post is a photograph that I took in January while out walking my dogs. At the trail’s zenith, overlooking the creek for which the trail is named, I came upon the Project Prayer Box. It was unattended, but a slot in the top made it easy for anyone that wanted to leave an anonymous prayer. I snapped the photo and went on with my hike, undoubtedly yelling at Eleanor and Beatrice to stop rolling in the water. But as I wrote this article, I returned to this photo. Responsible stewardship should not be a Hail Mary prayer, an imposition, or something done out of desperation when our backs are up against a wall. As humans, we must be better, must do better, than just praying for someone to step in to provide care when we are gone. When we adopt or buy an animal and take it into our family, we must do so for the duration of their life, not ours. I am hopeful that the resources mentioned here will make it easier for people to do just that.