Most people don’t have a will in place and they certainly don’t have plans for the pets. So what should you do?

On Aug. 12, the National Law Review published an excellent short piece written by Rebecca K. Wrock, a member of the estate planning practice team at Varnum Attorneys at Law. With seven offices throughout Michigan, they are one of that state’s premier, full-service firms.

Wrock wrote that with two-thirds of households owning pets, we should perhaps think about planning to care for our pets differently should we die: “While we have many people in our busy lives, our pets have only us.”

She wrote it is imperative that we plan for them to outlive us.

“Without provisions for your pet in your living trust, in the short term your pet could go days at home without food and water, and could feel panicked, distressed or abandoned,” Wrock wrote. “In the long term, your pet could end up with someone you don’t want them to end up with, or at a shelter where he or she could be euthanized.”

Wrock warned: “Informal agreements are generally not legally enforceable. Even more, simply adding your pet to a will is usually not enough to ensure their proper care throughout the process of settling an estate. Your pet will need care long before your will is probated, and wills offer no ongoing control or oversight for your pet, the caregiver, or funds left for your pet.”

Wrock recommended additional documents that pet owners need to have drafted and in place to ensure their pets are well cared for.

A pet trust can be part of an existing trust or it can be drawn up separately. In a trust, you name the caretaker and you establish a fiduciary obligation for them to care for the pets in the manner and style you choose. A trustee also is identified and they set up the funds to be distributed to the caretaker or other service providers like a veterinarian. The trustee is also under a fiduciary obligation to ensure the funds are only used for the purposes described.

Your pet trust allows you to name successive caretakers too, in case the primary can no longer perform the duties. Not naming an order of succession can lead to similar problems as if there was no trust.

“Without a pet trust … your pet becomes the legal property of the person who assumes care of the pet, and the new owner may make decisions about the pet’s future that you might disagree with,” Wrock wrote.

What about durable power of attorney for a pet? Wrock indicated they are important, too.

“The durable power of attorney for pet care allows you to authorize someone else to seek medical care for your pet and specify to what extent the agent may act on your behalf,” wrote Wrock. She added a DPA can be effective immediately so that it can also be used by a pet caretaker while you are away. You could also add pet provisions to your existing DPA for yourself as part of the care of your affairs.

Pet care instructions are vital, as pet care instructions will accompany the instructions in your pet trust.

She wrote it is important to have these as a separate document incorporated into your pet trust by reference so you can change pet care instructions as your pet’s needs and tastes change without having to update the trust.

“The pet care instructions should be reviewed and updated frequently to ensure that food requirements, medical information and emergency contacts are up to date,” she wrote.

Wrock also recommended carrying a wallet card or file on your cell phone to alert first responders.

Charlie Powell is the public information officer for the Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine, which provides this column as a community service. For questions or concerns about animals you’d like to read about, email cpowell@vetmed.wsu.edu.

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