If today’s Facebook and Instagram feeds are anything to go by, it’s clear that humans are totally obsessed with cats and dogs. But this isn’t a new development – in fact, it’s older than all of civilization. The earliest irrefutable evidence of canine domestication is over 14,000 years old, and some evidence even points towards older finds as old as 36,000 years. Dogs, and later cats, were among the first animals we ever befriended.
This friendship has left marks on humans and dogs alike. Living together for thousands of years has modified the dog both physically and mentally, and it has modified us as well. More than anything, the relationship between dog and man – as just one example – is one of symbiosis, where one benefits off the other.
Dogs have evolved to take advantage of our sensibilities for what is cute and affectionate, and they’re mentally prepared to rely on human interference for survival. Meanwhile, we’ve trained and bred dogs to help us hunt, travel, scout, gather, herd, and more.
But it’s the 21st century, and our reliance on companion animals for survival has declined somewhat in most developed countries. Aside from livestock, the pets we keep today live to keep us company, often for life – insofar as their lifespan allows. And because these animals tend to live shorter lives than their masters, we often need to deal with the pain of losing them.
Yet in some cases, it can happen that our pets outlive us. It’s then when the matter of ownership begins to quickly become complicated. Who takes care of a pet without a legal owner? Without the proper paperwork, the answer often isn’t very clear.
Legally, an animal cannot be a person. They are, for most intents and purposes, an individual’s private property. Yet special protections and regulations exist for animals that don’t exist for most other forms of property, particularly when it comes to animal cruelty.
It is legal to do with your pet as you please, so long as you do not do anything covered by your state’s animal cruelty and neglect laws, which include basic things such as requiring pet owners to provide adequate shelter and food, and refrain from torturing or otherwise abusing their animals.
Yet animals don’t enjoy any of the rights that come with personhood, and current law surrounding the care of animals are still quite limited. As such, when a person dies, their pets and animals become a form of property to be distributed to the right heir as per the law. When no other considerations are made, intestate law determines who gets a decedent’s pet – typically, it’s their child, spouse, or immediate family member.
Yet such arrangements are not always ideal. Nothing prohibits a person from essentially refusing to take care of the pet they inherited, and thus bringing said pet to the shelter, or selling them. A pet is also a massive financial and temporal investment, not one that everyone is willing to make. It takes lots of time, energy, and money to care for an animal, and while humans generally like pets, it’s not a universal trait.
If you care dearly for your pet, it’s clear that you don’t want them to be left in a shelter when you pass away. Thankfully, there are ways to ensure that your fur children are in the right hands after you die through a careful estate planning for pets. It all starts with figuring out who to elect as a potential guardian.
The first step, in many cases, is to strongly consider who would genuinely take care of your pet for the rest of your pet’s life, if you should pass away. Depending on the pet you own, this could be a few years to over a decade, which is a considerable commitment.
While there are ways to ease the financial burden of this commitment by committing a portion of your estate to the proper care of your pet (and in some cases, its offspring), this can be a considerable expense and does not account for the mental and physical burden of taking care of an animal. Larger pets, such as horses, will require greater upkeep and a proper form of shelter, which may limit your choice of guardian.
It’s important to be sure that the person you choose as a guardian is up to the task. In most cases, there is little preventing your chosen pet guardian from selling the pet and keeping the money.
However, some arrangements forbid that. For example, estate planning for pets requires the proper documentation of a signed and witnessed trust - giving a trustee ownership over your pet and a portion of your estate for your pet’s continued well-being will also necessitate that the trustee fulfill their end of the trust (by taking care of the pet and making use of the funds appropriately). Such trusts have a maximum limit of 21 years in most states, but others like California extend the trust to the full duration of the pet’s life.
One way to let your surviving family members know that you wish for someone to take care of your pet is to designate them through a formal bequest within a will. This is as simple as adding a portion to the will that reads “I leave my pet dog Winter to my sister, Jane Doe.”
However, such suggestions are just that: suggestions. They are not legally binding, and there is nothing preventing Jane from delivering the dog to a shelter or pawning him or her off to someone else in the family.
Once again, when using a will, it’s important to be sure that the person you’re entrusting your pet to wants to take care of it, has the means to do so properly, and is very likely to continue to care for your pet until they pass away.
Most pets, with some exceptions like horses and parrots, don’t live for several decades. It’s often unlikely that a pet outlives its owner. But it can happen, depending on how old the owner is when they first received the pet, and whether anything might happen to cut short the owner’s life.
With the benefits of estate planning for pets extending even to young unmarried couples and bachelors/bachelorettes, there’s plenty of reason for younger pet owners to consider setting up a means to ensure their pets have a future should anything happen to them.
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