By Attorney Keith Morris
Special to THELAW.TV

It’s a common mistake of many Americans to leave some of their most beloved family members out of their estate plans. If you have pets, making provisions for their care in the event of your death should be an important part of your estate planning process.

Because pets have shorter lifespans, it’s not uncommon to assume you’ll outlive them. However, in the event of an accident or unexpected illness, it’s the duty of a responsible pet owner to ensure your furry family members will receive quality care even when you are unable to provide it.

Planning for the unexpected

When an accident or sudden illness strikes, pets can get lost in the fray. There are some simple precautions you can take to make sure your pets will be taken care of in these situations.

First, talk to your friends. Find at least two people who will agree to be responsible for your pets in the event of an emergency. Make sure they have keys to your house, feeding and care instructions, and the name and phone number of your pets’ veterinarian.

Second, always carry a card in your wallet that lists names and phone numbers of your emergency pet guardians, and also list the names and types of pets you have.

How to include pets in your estate plan

One of the options to consider is including your pets in your will. You can designate a guardian and even leave the guardian funds to help provide for your pet. However, there are some drawbacks to this, including:

Wills cannot enforce demands. Just because you leave your cat and money to someone does not mean they are obligated to keep the pet or use the money to care for it.

Wills take time. After a person dies, the probate process can take a while. It may be weeks, months, or even years before the will’s stipulations are carried out, especially if there are legal issues with the document. Who will care for your pet during this time period?

Wills do not provide for incapacity. If you become seriously ill or are incapacitated in an accident, you may be unable to care for yourself, much less a pet. A will does not provide for the care of your pet in these circumstances.

To combat these issues, estate planning attorneys may recommend the use of a pet trust. A pet trust offers several additional protections for your beloved furry family members, including:

  • They can provide for your pets in the event of an incapacity.
  • They can avoid the issues of a prolonged probate process.
  • They can control disbursement of funds for your pet’s care.

It’s always a good idea to discuss guardianship with the caretaker you are naming to make sure they agree to do it. Naming a secondary guardian is highly advisable, as well.

What to do if you don’t have a pet guardian

If you don’t have any friends or family members who would be willing to take care of your pet, there are still options. While many humane society organizations don’t have the space or funding to be a designated caregiver to your pet, there are places that specialize in this type of care.

Look into pet sanctuaries that offer lifetime care for animals after their owners have died or facilities that find adoptive families for the pets of a deceased person. Before making a decision, do some research, read reviews of the facility, and schedule a visit to check out local establishments. See how pets are cared for, socialized, and exercised, and check out their policies and procedures concerning adoption.

The author, Keith Morris, is a Houston, Texas estate planning and guardianship attorney.