Estate plans that include pets can save their lives  

By Dustin Rhodes 

It might sound a bit morbid, but when the pandemic first struck, my spouse and I shared the same reaction: “Uh-oh. Better write our wills.”  

Until then, being in our 40’s—the thick of middle-age—we avoided anything having to do with estate planning, sickness or death because we don’t have children, and we naively pretend death is far away, creaky knees and sore backs notwithstanding.  

Of course, the uncertainty of COVID-19 changed everything. So, we called an estate attorney and started writing our wills in the first month of lock-down. 

Our biggest motivation, however, was less about our own demise than making sure our two dogs were taken care of. Did you know that about 10% of animals in shelters wind up there because their owner(s) die? It’s likely that many of these animal-loving people thought they had arranged for someone to care for their pet, but the reality is that a lot of people will flake out on following through on a commitment they thought would never come. Many pet owners don’t even think to ask someone. 

A good friend of mine—still young, in his early 60’s—died right before the pandemic reached North America. Incidentally, he had also just adopted two schnauzers from a rescue only a couple of years beforehand. When he was diagnosed with an incurable cancer, he immediately re-wrote his will, and even more smartly, found a couple who said they would adopt his two dogs after his death. But my friend went a step further than most: In his will, he left a chunk of money to provide for his two dogs’ food and care—enough money to cover their lifetime expenses. 

Surprising someone with the “gift” of your pets after you’ve passed away is a truly horrible idea and the reason so many animals end up in shelters. Instead, find someone who agrees to take care of your pets. Ask someone you know well and who knows your pets well. Also, let them know you are leaving money in your estate plans for the animals’ care.  

Be generous. Many people refuse loved ones’ pets simply because of expense. Veterinary costs over the lifetime of a pet can reach into the thousands.  

You can use a will, a living will or a pet trust to name the new owner of your pet, and depending on how you write your will, you can ensure that the money is only used for care. You want to ask someone who’s younger than you, who has a stable lifestyle that is conducive to pet ownership, someone who adores animals as much as you, is trustworthy, patient and kind. Pet trusts are legal in all 50 states, so it’s a durable agreement. 

If you don’t have a friend or family member who loves your pet(s) as much as you do, there are organizations that will care for your pet. However, these organizations are few and far between and generally require a large donation (sometimes up to $15K and even more) before they agree to take on that responsibility. You will have to research your own community—perhaps with the help of your attorney—to determine if such an organization exists locally. 

Safeguarding a future for animals 

While you’re working on your will, you should also consider what organizations you’d like to  support as well. By providing a gift to an organization like Friends of Animals, you gain the satisfaction of knowing you continue to help save animals long after your gone. 

Since I work in development, I see a lot of interesting choices people make in regard to their wills. An attorney will guide you through the process, but a larger gift, designated to a smaller number of non-profits, in my opinion, makes the greatest impact.  

It’s not uncommon for people leave money to organizations that don’t exist when they die. My family decided—partially inspired by my own job—to leave money only to a handful of organizations; ones we think will be around for the coming decades, like Friends of Animals.  

I’m not going to lie: Writing a will wasn’t exactly what I would call fun, but I felt some peace of mind the minute our wills were signed, a small weight lifted. If you are industrious, you can technically write a will for free. For me, that seemed intimidating, and something I could potentially mess up badly.  

If you are going to ensure your beloved pets are taken care of after your death, an attorney is practically essential. If you’d like to talk to us here at Friends of Animals about your estate plans, please don’t hesitate to give myself or my co-worker Michelle (our director of administration) a call: 203-656-1522.