Americans love their pets. In fact, dogs and cats are beloved members of the family in more than 60 percent of all homes. Yet our pets are generally the least protected family members in an emergency.
When the unexpected happens, it doesn’t just happen to us. The pets that depend on us are also affected by our accidents, injuries and illnesses.
James, a first-year law student, is rarely seen without his golden retriever and best friend Maddy. But when a motorcycle accident left James unconscious and critically injured, Maddy wasn’t with him. She was locked inside their off-campus apartment, in a city far from the family and friends who would normally see to her care in an emergency.
Sara, a cockatoo, has been with Maura since Maura’s 21st birthday, 45 years ago. With an average life expectancy of 80 years, Sara will likely outlive her loving owner. Unfortunately, Maura’s children are not particularly fond of Sara.
Max is battling a serious illness, the treatment for which will leave him too weak to care for Kitty properly — at least for several months. He’s lived alone since his divorce and his children all reside in other states.
In each of these situations, the well-being of a much-loved pet is threatened — but could be ensured with a little advance planning.
Simple Steps to Protect Your Pets
For those little everyday emergencies, it’s important to document your pet’s vital information — including the name and breed of your pet, your pet’s home address, the name and contact information for your veterinarian and one or more emergency contacts, your pet’s microchip data, and any health concerns or special care or feeding requirements.
Keep one copy of the document with your personal or estate planning files and another with you, in your purse or wallet. If you’re in an accident, emergency responders and caregivers will have the information necessary to see that your pet is provided for over the short term.
It’s also wise to publicly display a notice regarding the number and types of pets in your family. Post the notice on a door or window at the front of your home, visible to first responders in the event of a fire, earthquake or other emergency.
For more serious and longer-term situations, or in the event of your death, there are additional actions you may wish to take. You can, for example, include a provision for your pet in your power of attorney and your will, and you can establish a pet trust. Although they’re briefly described below, the specifics generally vary by legal jurisdiction — for example, not all states recognize pet trusts. You should consult your attorney and estate planning advisor to implement the tools that best meet your needs.
Pet Provision in Your Power of Attorney
A power of attorney (or durable power of attorney) is a written document that appoints another person to manage your affairs under specific circumstances, such as a protracted illness or serious injury. You can include a provision in the document authorizing this person to ensure that your pet is cared for if you are incapacitated and unable to do so — including the authority to spend money for your pet’s care or place your pet with a temporary or permanent caregiver.
The selection of a caregiver is something you need to plan for in advance. It’s important to ensure that your preferred caregiver is willing and able to take on the responsibility, and is knowledgeable regarding your wishes and your pet’s needs.
Will with a Pet Clause
A pet clause in your will documents your wishes for your pet in the event of your death.
Unlike a provision in a power of attorney, this clause only takes effect after your death and the probating of your will, so you’ll need to make temporary provisions for your pet until the terms of your will are implemented.
A pet trust can be created to provide for the immediate care and ownership of your pet in the event you are incapacitated, even temporarily. It can also provide for your pet upon your death. Significantly, a pet trust is generally more enforceable than a pet clause in a will.
A pet trust can take various forms — for example, an inter vivos trust which takes effect during your lifetime, but can be changed or revoked as necessary.
When you establish a trust, you contribute assets to fund the trust and designate both a trustee (to manage the trust’s assets) and a beneficiary/caretaker (who cares for your pet and has certain enforcement rights if the trustee fails in his or her responsibility to carry out the trust’s terms).
Although not all states recognize pet trusts, Washington State enacted legislation in 2001 to “recognize and validate certain trusts that are established for the benefit of animals.”
For More Information
The Humane Society has prepared a Fact Sheet describing the actions you can take to ensure your pet is well cared for in the event that something happens to you. Washington State’s pet trust law is RCW Title 11, Chapter 11.118.