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July 12, 2005 > If your companion animal outlives you...

If your companion animal outlives you...

by Nancy Lyon

When you walk the wards of an animal shelter you frequently encounter a bewildered dog or cat huddled in the corner of a kennel or cage with the kennel card reading "owner deceased." Unfortunately, the animal's human caregiver may not have considered what would happen to their cherished animal if they became incapacitated or died before them.

Since companion animals usually have shorter lives than their human caregivers, we don't always consider what their future will be should we no longer be here to protect and care for them or be unable to do so. Who will provide food and water, shelter, veterinary care, and love? To ensure that your beloved friend will continue to receive this care should something unexpected happen to you, it's critical to plan ahead.

OHS has made an effort to try and rehome many of these often senior shelter animals, but it's not an easy task. The sad fact is that there are always more needy lives than good homes and too many of the animals end up being euthanized. So how can this sad end to a life of love and devotion be avoided?

In order to stimulate your thinking as a responsible guardian, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) provides a general overview on how you can take steps to provide for your animal family's future. They state that the best way to ensure your wishes for their future is by making formal arrangements that specifically cover their care.

It's not enough that someone a while back may have offered verbally to take in your animal or even that you've decided to leave money to that friend for that purpose. It's necessary to work with an attorney to draw up a special will, trust, or other document to provide for the care and guardianship of your "pet," as well as the money necessary to care for her. The HSUS provides this guidance.

First, decide whether you want all your companion animals to go to one person, or whether they should go to different people. If possible, keep animals who have bonded with one another together. When selecting caregivers, consider partners, adult children, parents, brothers, sisters, and friends who have met them and have successfully cared for animals themselves. Also name alternate caregivers in case your first choice becomes unable or unwilling to take your companion. Be sure to discuss your expectations with potential caregivers so they understand the large responsibility of caring for your friend. Remember, the new caregiver will have full discretion over the animal's care-including veterinary treatment and euthanasia-so make sure you choose a person you trust implicitly and who will do what is in the animal's best interest.

Because people's circumstances and priorities change over time, you'll want to keep in contact with the person or family that has committed to caring for your animal. It's important to have alternatives such as temporary care lined up should your primary caregiver not be available. If all else fails, it is also possible to direct your executor or personal representative, in your will, to place the animal with another individual or family (that is, in a non-institutional setting). Finding a satisfactory new home can take several weeks of searching, so again, it is important to line up temporary care. The animal shelter should be your last option.

According to HSUS, you also have to know and trust your executor and provide useful, but not unrealistically confining, instructions in your will. You should also authorize your executor to expend funds from your estate for the temporary care of your animal as well as for the costs of looking for a new home and transporting the animal to it. The will should also grant broad discretion to your executor in making decisions about the animal and in expending estate funds on the animal's behalf.

It is strongly urged that you to consult an attorney when developing a will and other estate plans. In some cases, self-written or "home-made" wills and estate plans may not ultimately be considered valid. In addition, charitable legatees need to be properly described in the will to avoid confusion later.

HSUS offers a kit, "Providing for Your Pet's Future Without You" that includes forms and advice to help you design a will and other estate plans for their care should your animal survive you. For more information, call (202) 452-1100 to order a free copy of the kit or you can view it online at:

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