If You Die Before Your Dog

Making solid preparations so your pet is not left in limbo — or worse.


Because dogs live an average of 10 to 15 years, and our lifespan averages closer to 80, we don’t generally expect to go first. Yet more than a half million pets are orphaned each year due to an owner’s death or disability. And shelters are full of pets whose owners died without making provisions for their care going forward. To avoid that fate for your dog (which could result in premature death for her if the shelter has to put her down for lack of room), consider including your dog in your estate planning.

For people surrounded by dog-loving friends and family members who can afford the expense of taking care of a dog, making such a plan can be simple. You just have a conversation with someone whose word you trust, and they will be there in the unlikely event that you cannot be. You can even write something down that both you and the other person sign. It won’t be legally enforceable, but it will at least codify the person’s commitment to your pet.

When a handshake won’t do

Sometimes, an informal agreement is not going to cut it, either because you don’t know someone with whom you would feel comfortable entrusting your dog or because you do but the person can’t afford to take on the responsibility without your help. In such cases, creating a trust can be very helpful. A trust rather than a will is generally recommended when it comes to your dog because wills go through a process called probate, and that can tie things up for quite a while, leaving your pet in limbo until your estate is settled. Also, wills don’t account for incapacitation, only death. And you want your pet cared for if you remain alive but can no longer take care of her.

A pet trust, on the other hand, allows your designee to step in at the moment you are unable to tend to your pet. If your designee will love your dog and take good care of her but doesn’t have the money to do so, a trust can contain a provision providing a certain amount per month to the caretaker for food and other supplies, and it can also make sure there’s money for medical care, including for a medical emergency. You can get pretty specific, specifying the brand of food you want your dog to eat and how many veterinary checkups you want annually. You can also provide leeway for financial or other changes depending on how your dog’s health (or the health of the caregiver) plays out over time.

Choose an attorney who does estate planning

Estate planning laws for pets vary from state to state, so it’s important to retain a lawyer for drawing up the trust who knows the laws in your locale. A trust, like a will, can be contested (although it’s often harder), and you don’t want some disgruntled relative coming out of the woodwork who can successfully challenge money you’ve left for your pet’s care because they perceive it as “family money.”

Once the trust has been created, be certain the trustee has a copy. If you die and your dog is taken to an animal shelter by the authorities, it will be hard for your pet’s new caretaker to quickly bring the dog home without documentation proving they are the person you have designated as the guardian.

It’s also a good idea to keep a pet alert card in your wallet. If something happens to you away from home, it will alert those who find you to the fact that you have a pet in the house. The card should also contain the name and phone number of the individual assigned to take and care for your dog in your absence. The tighter you can make the connection between you and the person who will take care of your dog after you, the less likely it becomes that your pet will end up where she’s not supposed to be.


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