Petting dog

Do you have a plan for your pets if you die or become unable to care for them? It’s not something that any of us like to think about, but it may be a matter of life and death for our pets. Because I am not getting any younger, it’s something I’ve had to consider myself — and I think it’s important that you do, as well.

There’s lots of good information out there about how to include pets in a will or set up a trust for them. But while it’s important to make sure that your pets are financially provided for in the event of your death, that’s not the whole picture. It’s also crucial to decide exactly who will care for your pets or be in charge of finding them a new home.

Too often, I hear sad stories of old or sick animals being left at shelters because an owner has become ill or disabled or has died without making any plans for their pets. To make sure that doesn’t happen to your beloved dog, cat, parrot or other pet, take the following steps to find an appropriate caregiver and develop a backup plan.

Who Gets Your Pets?

We rely on our families for so many things, including help and support in emergencies. But while your siblings, parents and children may be delighted to see and spend time with your animals, don’t assume that family members are your only — or even the best — option when it comes to caring for your pets. They may be unwilling or unable to take your animals into their home should something happen to you, or they may not understand the best ways to find new homes for your pets.

Instead of assuming that a family member will step up and take responsibility for your pets, talk with your family and be absolutely certain that they are willing and able to care for your animals in the way that you would like. Be clear about your expectations and about the amount of time and effort involved in caring for your pet. Family members may be more likely to agree to serve as a caretaker if they know what they’re getting into. If your pets are thrust upon family members without warning, however, your family may be overwhelmed by the responsibility and may feel that a shelter is the best — or the only — solution.

As an alternative to family, consider friends or neighbors who have pets of their own, especially the ones who have the same type of pet you do or whose animals know your animals and get along with them. Choose someone you trust to care for your pet in a loving and responsible way. If you feel able, propose setting up a reciprocal agreement with them: “I’ll take your pets if you’ll take mine.”

No matter who you choose, put the agreement in writing. Include specific information about how you would like your pets cared for — the type of food they eat, the veterinarian they go to, their grooming needs, individual quirks, etc. You and your potential pet guardian should both have a copy of this agreement, and it should be included with your will or other documents related to your estate. Revisit the agreement every year or so to make sure it still works for both of you. Think about limiting the number of pets you have as well so that your chosen caretaker isn’t swamped with new animals all at once, or make plans to place different pets with different people.

I also recommend identifying a backup caretaker in the event that your first choice is unable to care for your pets at the time of your death or disability — people’s situations change, and it is always possible that your caretaker may not actually be able to take on a new pet when the time comes. The backup caretaker should be someone who would be willing and able to step in, either temporarily or permanently, to care for your animals.

Look Beyond Family and Friends

What if you don’t have anyone in your circle of family and friends who’s willing — or able — to take on your pets? You may need to reconsider what you’re asking. You may not know anyone who is willing to adopt your pets permanently, but you probably know people who can help to find them a new forever home and make sure they don’t end up sitting in a shelter.

Talk to your veterinarian, your dog trainer, your pet sitter or your groomer. These pet professionals know a lot of people and may be willing to help spread the word about your pet’s need for a new home, should something happen to you. Be sure that your attorney or your executor knows how to get in touch with this person and understands that he or she has agreed to help find a new home for your pets.

If you are leaving the job of finding a new forever home to someone else, put in writing a description of the best type of home or family you would like for your pets. That will guide your executor and your vet (or whoever it is that is helping re-home your animals) in making good placement decisions.

If you own a purebred dog or pedigreed cat, or if you adopted your pet from a breed-rescue group, you may not have to worry as much about finding a new caregiver for your pet — his placement may be limited by the purchase or adoption contract. In other words, you may be contractually required to return your dog or cat to the breeder or rescue group in the event that you can’t keep him, regardless of how much time has passed since you purchased or adopted the pet. If that’s the case, know that you’re dealing with a gold-star breeder or adoption organization who has your pet’s best interests at heart.

If you do have this type of agreement with a breeder or rescue, it’s a good idea to stay in touch with that person or group. Breeders and rescue groups are always thrilled to hear how their animals are doing, and any updates or photos you might send them will be appreciated. Staying in contact with your breeder or rescue group also enables you to be aware of any policy changes or changes to the business model. (Your breeder may retire, for example, and not be in a position to take your dog or cat back from you.)

Talk to the breeder or adoption organization about your plans for your pets. If the pet is going back to the breeder or rescue group, there may be specific steps that you or your representative will need to take in order to return your animal. Alternatively, the breeder or rescue may be willing to sign off on the person you’ve chosen to care for your pet or to stand by to help place the pet if needed.

Be Clear About Your Wishes

No matter what your plans for your pets are, be sure that your wishes for their care are clearly spelled out, in writing, and that your executor, attorney or another responsible party has contact information for your chosen caretakers and can deal with the situation immediately. You don’t want your pets to be in legal limbo.

Be sure to authorize your executor to provide funds for your pet’s care while your estate is being settled. Costs may include not only food, grooming and veterinary care but also the possible expense of transporting the pet to his new home.

Finally, make sure you set aside an appropriate amount in a pet trust to help cover your pet’s expenses for the rest of his life. It’s not fair to ask someone to take on the full costs of an animal’s care with little or no reimbursement. Once you have done all this, you’ll rest easy knowing your pet will have the best possible home when you are gone.

More on Vetstreet: