Pet Care

What Happens to Pets When Their Owners Die Without a Will

What Happens to Pets When Their Owners Die Without a Will

Pets are deeply cherished family members in over 85 million households across the United States. From dogs and cats to birds, rabbits, horses, and even potbelly pigs, animals of all kinds have found their way into our homes and hearts.

But despite considering them part of the family, many pet owners do not make proper end-of-life arrangements for their beloved companions. This leaves the animals vulnerable if an owner passes away unexpectedly.

So what does happen to pets when their owners die without leaving clear instructions for their care? Unfortunately, several problematic scenarios often take place.

In this post, we will learn how to avoid these outcomes by creating a detailed pet estate plan.

4 Common Situations Pets Face Without Proper Planning

When pet parents pass away without designating new caregivers, here are some of the difficult circumstances their animals are left to contend with:

1. Relinquishment to Shelters

Without a designated new guardian, pets are often brought to animal shelters after their owner dies. Even highly sociable, friendly, and trained dogs and cats can end up in shelter kennels surrounded by strangers and stressful noises.

And overcrowding causes suffering in many shelters. Even young and healthy pets sometimes end up being euthanized if no home is found. Shelter staff do their best to comfort and care for abandoned pets. But the sudden loss of home and family is extremely traumatic for animals.

According to the Best Friends Animal Society, U.S. shelters take in approximately 5-7 million pets each year. Of those, only around 3.2 million are adopted. Hundreds of thousands of pets without behavioral or health issues are still euthanized annually due to the sheer lack of space and resources in the shelter system.

2. Pets Left Alone in a Home

In some cases, when an owner living alone passes away, their body may not be discovered right away. This leaves any pets behind in the home alone without care. Dogs or cats could go days without food or water before anyone checks on the property. And small pets like birds and rabbits can die even sooner from starvation without daily care.

Coming upon an owner who has died is hugely stressful and frightening for pets too. While it’s an unfortunate scenario, pets left confined and alone after an owner’s death is a preventable tragedy with proper planning.

3. Family Disputes Over Pet Guardianship

When a pet parent dies without leaving clear instructions, family members left behind may argue over who should take in the pets. Or relatives may disagree on whether re-homing or euthanizing the animals would be “best.”

Pets often end up bouncing between different family members or strangers, which is incredibly destabilizing. These animals require stability after the emotional upset of losing their previous owner. Family disputes just compound the stress and uncertainty they feel.

4. Pets Legally Treated as Property

Without an estate plan in place, pets are considered legal property. That means they could potentially be willed to someone completely unable to care for them properly. Or distant relatives may even attempt to sell the animals for profit.

Even well-meaning relatives may not have the time, finances, or appropriate living space to commit to caring for their loved one’s pets long-term. But without binding arrangements, pets could still be left with unprepared guardians.

The key to preventing these devastating scenarios is creating an estate plan with detailed instructions for re-homing pets to trusted guardians. This provides comfort, continuity of care, and stability when a beloved pet parent passes away.

Why Estate Planning Is Essential for Pet Owners

Estate planning is not only about distributing your assets and possessions after death. For pet owners, it also involves making future arrangements for dependent family members – the dogs, cats, birds, rabbits, reptiles, or any animal sharing your home.

A 2017 survey found that 65% of owners consider their pets as much a part of the family as any other person. Yet only 37% of respondents had included pet care instructions in their wills.

Failing to leave legally binding instructions for beloved pets’ future care puts them at risk if an owner dies unexpectedly. But there are options to prevent pets from ending up homeless, mishandled as property, or euthanized down the road.

Tip: Consider working with an estate planning attorney to set up arrangements that work best for your unique situation. The peace of mind is worth it!

At a minimum, any pet owner’s estate plan should:

  • Name a trusted, capable person as the primary guardian to assume custody of pets and responsibility for their care if the owner dies or becomes disabled.
  • Outline detailed instructions for each pet’s medical needs, housing, daily routine, and preferences.
  • Allocate financial resources to adequately provide future food, supplies, veterinary costs, and other pet care expenses.
  • Grant legal authority to the chosen pet guardian and spell out wishes in binding legal documents like a will, pet trust, and power of attorney.

With the right provisions made for your pets, you can rest assured they will be loved and cared for even after you are gone. Their well-being will be protected despite the emotional turmoil of losing you.

Below are various ways to arrange pet guardianship and care through estate planning.

How to Provide for Pets in Your Estate Plan

There are several options for making legal arrangements to protect pets if you pass away or become disabled as a pet owner. Here are some top ways to follow:

Designating a Pet Guardian in Your Will

The most basic provision for pets is identifying a chosen guardian in your will. This names the individual you want to assume custody and care of your animals upon your death.

In your will, you can also leave monetary assets or property to this guardian to help cover pet care costs. However, there is no way to guarantee those funds will actually go toward the pets’ expenses in the future.

An ideal pet guardian is a trusted friend or family member willing and able to make a long-term commitment to responsibly caring for your animals. Make sure anyone you name as a guardian is aware of your wishes and consents to the arrangement.

Consider naming alternative guardians, too, in case your first choice is unable to serve at the time of your death. Discuss your wishes with all individuals who might be involved so your pets are provided for no matter what.

Having a pet guardian outlined in a legally binding will is far better protection than leaving no instructions at all. While more robust options are available, this basic provision is a good starting point.

Creating a Pet Trust

A pet trust is recommended for the strongest assurance your pets will be cared for as intended. A legally enforceable trust guarantees assets you designate go toward your pets’ future care and other expenses.

A pet trust names a trustee to manage the funds in the trust and distributes any earnings to a designated caretaker who assumes custody of pets. Pet trust funds can also be used to reimburse a caretaker for any necessary pet costs.

Key roles in a pet trust include:

  • Trustee: A person or organization named to oversee the trust funds, follow instructions and distribute money to the caretaker for pet expenses. A trusted family member, lawyer, or financial institution could fill this role.
  • Caretaker: An individual who assumes custody of your pets and responsibility for their daily care. Often this is the same as the guardian named in your will, but it could be a different person.
  • Successor caretaker: Alternate caretaker in case your first choice is unavailable.
  • Beneficiary: Your beloved pet(s) who benefit from continued care through trust distributions.

In your pet trust instructions, provide the following:

  • Your pets’ detailed medical histories and care notes to assist the transition.
  • Specific instructions for housing, diet, enrichment, training, handling, and general care are tailored to each animal.
  • Conditions under which the trustee should make trust distributions to the caretaker.
  • How often the trustee should check in for updates on your pet’s health and living situation

You’ll also want to fund the trust with an adequate amount to provide for future pet care costs. Experts recommend at least $10,000 per year or more for dogs and cats. Exact figures vary based on the animal’s life expectancy, breed size, and any special medical needs.

A pet trust legally ensures your animals are cared for as you wish without being subject to property discussion or mishandling. The trustee is obligated to carry out your stipulations and can be held accountable through court intervention if they fail to distribute funds properly.

One downside to pet trusts is that they require creating a separate legal arrangement beyond a will. So additional attorney fees are involved. Still, the security of a legally enforceable trust is worth the extra expense for most pet lovers seeking lasting peace of mind.

Letter of Instruction

While less formal than a pet trust, a letter of instruction can provide helpful information to your pet’s chosen guardian. Include details like:

  • Your pet’s daily routine and care preferences
  • Behavior quirks and training notes
  • Medical conditions and veterinary records
  • Diet specifications and favorite foods/treats
  • Likes/dislikes of toys, activities, human interactions
  • Techniques that comfort or calm your pet

A letter may not be legally binding. But it can aid the transition to a new home, especially when paired with formal arrangements like a will. Send updated copies to your appointed guardians anytime your pet’s needs change.

Power of Attorney

A power of attorney document lets you name someone to make decisions regarding your pets or property if you become incapacitated. Choose a trusted person who can ensure your animals receive proper care if you can no longer handle the matters yourself.

Granting someone power of attorney for pets provides an added layer of protection in the event of your disability or diminished mental capacity and death. It authorizes the designee to make important choices for pet guardianship, medical care, and other needs if you become unable.

Microchipping Pets

Microchipping is essential for all pets, but be sure registration contacts stay updated. Provide contact info for your designated guardian so they can easily retrieve pets if lost after your death from a shelter.

Ask your chosen guardian to immediately register as the main contact as soon as your pets are left in their care. Keep tags and microchip data current!

Providing Ongoing Financial Support

A pet trust offers the most legally solid option for funding your pet’s continued expenses. But some alternatives include:

  • Naming your pet’s guardian as a beneficiary on a life insurance policy to receive payout funds after your death.
  • Setting up a bank account or credit card to cover pet costs as needed for the guardian’s access.
  • Pre-paying for a pet health insurance policy that remains active for a period of time after you pass away.
  • Investing in long-term pet care services, including boarding, walking, and sitting assistance to support a grieving guardian.

No matter how you arrange financial resources, be sure to disclose details to your pet’s designated caretakers so funds are readily available when needed.

7 Things You Should Look For When Planning for Your Pet’s Future

cat with old parents

cat with old parents

Consider the following essential points when mapping out your pet estate plan:

1. Guardian’s Capability and Commitment

The guardian you appoint should be completely willing, able, and equipped to care for your pets long-term in the event of your death or disability. Have straightforward conversations to align on expectations.

Choose a guardian who:

  • Is fully committed to assuming custody and providing excellent care for the pets’ entire lifespan.
  • Has the physical health, mobility, stamina, and mental soundness to handle animal companion responsibilities.
  • Has living quarters suitable for housing your pets.
  • Is financially able to pay for pet expenses like medical care, food, proper housing, and supplies.
  • Has related lifestyle factors and schedules compatible with caring for your pets.
  • Will follow your wishes and instructions for diet preferences, exercise needs, training techniques, veterinary care, etc.
  • Will provide love, tender loving care, and attention.
  • Will facilitate regular interaction with other family members/people significant to your pet if desired.
  • Agrees to serve as guardian with full awareness of responsibilities involved.

Choose someone who loves your pets nearly as much as you do and will be genuinely invested in their happiness!

2. Sufficient Funding

Your estate plan should allocate enough funding to cover your pet’s anticipated future costs. Work with your chosen guardian to estimate expenses like:

  • Food and treats
  • Toys and supplies
  • Grooming/hygiene needs
  • Housing accommodations
  • Routine veterinary exams
  • Emergency veterinary fees
  • Medications
  • Special therapeutic care
  • Pet insurance
  • Pet sitting or boarding
  • Burial or cremation services

Funds to cover at least a year’s worth of expected costs—or more for younger pets—provide flexibility and security for guardians.

3. Pet’s Health History and Care Needs

To help your pet guardian make educated decisions, share documentation of medical history, including:

  • Spay/neuter status
  • Microchip ID
  • Ongoing conditions
  • Allergies
  • Past surgeries/illnesses
  • Current medications and dosages
  • Dietary needs and restrictions
  • Veterinary exam schedule
  • Vaccination records
  • Therapist contacts for behavioral care
  • Insurance policy information

Be as thorough as possible to facilitate an easy transition in care providers. Also indicate any regular grooming requirements for your pet, like nail trims, teeth brushing, bathing frequency, etc.

4. Pet Care Schedule and Personality Traits

In addition to medical background, sharing your pet’s schedule, quirks, and temperament aids the adjustment process in a new home:

  • Daily feeding times and amount
  • Potty break schedule
  • Enrichment and play routines
  • Exercise needs like walks and yard time
  • Obedience training notes
  • Behavior triggers to avoid
  • Calming techniques for stress
  • Favorite toys, games, activities
  • Tricks and commands learned
  • Comforting routines like belly rubs or lullabies

Notes can include everything from your cat’s favorite sunny napping spot to how your parrot loves “conversing.” Help caretakers maintain consistency.

5. Pet Diet Specifications

Provide detailed feeding instructions like:

  • Type of food (kibble/wet/raw brands, any prescription food etc)
  • Meal times and quantity per day
  • Prohibitions – foods that must be avoided
  • The location where meals are fed
  • Special feeding tools like slow bowls or elevated stands
  • Treat preferences and limitations
  • Supplements and medications mixed with food

Follow current veterinary recommendations for an ideal nutrition regimen. Account for any special needs like soft food for dental issues or calorie-controlled amounts for weight management.

6. Ideal Housing Environment

Specify what type of home setting you prefer for your pet after you are gone. Would you like them to:

  • Stay in your home if the guardian moves in. Or gradually transition to the guardian’s residence while they care for your pet in your home first?
  • Integrate into the guardian’s home right away?
  • Move into a sanctuary or rescue animal farm better equipped for their specialized needs in the absence of your care.
  • Be re-homed with another trusted family member or friend you believe would provide an excellent environment.

Consider your pet’s personality, training, health needs, and temperament when envisioning ideal housing. An anxious dog may benefit most from staying put in your home with familiar sights and smells.

7. Back-up Guardian Plan

As a precaution, always name at least one or two backup guardians in case your first choice falls through. No one can predict if a designated caretaker may suddenly move abroad, develop a serious illness or become unable to care for a pet for other reasons.

Discuss your wishes with multiple potential guardians to build a safety net. They should be aware of their name being listed as a possible caretaker.

Keeping standby guardians informed ensures seamless transitions in the event your primary guardian is unable to fulfill duties down the road. Your pets deserve stability!

Following these tips will help provide your pets with the best possible care and living situation matched to their unique needs if you’re no longer around. Prioritizing their comfort demonstrates the deep love and bond you share.

3 Common Questions and Answers About Pet Estate Planning

Many animal lovers understandably have additional questions about how to best prepare for their pets’ future well-being through estate planning. Here are answers to some frequently asked questions:

Can I leave money directly to my pet in my will?

Legally pets are considered property, so you cannot leave money or asset directly to them. While well-intentioned, bequeathing funds straight to an animal carries risks. Instead, the natural approach is using a pet trust administered by a designated trustee on your pet’s behalf.

This ensures financial support follows your instructions for the animal’s benefit under trustee supervision. A will can name a trusted person as an enforcer of the trust. It’s the most ironclad way to protect future pet care funding from mishandling.

What if I can’t afford a large pet trust fund?

Even smaller pet trusts are helpful—something is better than nothing! Or you can simply designate a guardian in your will if funds are limited. The key is choosing a guardian willing and able to shoulder pet expenses out of pocket after you’re gone.

Have an open conversation to set expectations on costs the guardian will need to take on before they commit. Share details on your pet’s health, age, and anticipated needs so they can assess if it fits their means.

While a strong trust offers the best assurance, your careful guardian selection is most important if money is tight. An earnest discussion aligns you both on managing costs.

Should I re-home pets before I pass away?

Not necessarily. Moving to a brand new environment is hugely stressful for companion animals. Maintaining the same home and familiar routine can provide security despite the absence of their previous owner.

Rather than re-homing the pet preemptively, a better option is to have your designated guardian gradually begin caring for the pet in your home before you pass away. This allows the animal to adjust to its new caretaker while keeping its surroundings constant initially.

Once the pet is comfortable with the guardian after a transition period, the guardian can move it into their home permanently if needed. But keeping disruption minimal benefits sensitive animals.

Final Words: Ensure Your Pets Feel Safe, Loved, and Secure

Losing a beloved human companion is always traumatic for the pets who rely on us. But you can minimize sadness and uncertainty for your animals by taking steps to arrange for their future care.

With proper estate planning, your most treasured furry, feathered, and scaled family members will feel safe, comfortable, and secure despite your absence from their lives.

While end-of-life planning for your pets may seem morbid, view it as one final act of love. Taking action to ensure your pets’ health and happiness even after you part ways is a significant gift.

At minimum:

  • Name a guardian in your will – This legally conveys your trusted caretaker choice.
  • Share detailed care instructions – Provide info to make the pet’s transition smooth.
  • Arrange ongoing finances – Fund supplies, medical costs, and expenses.
  • Formalize with a pet trust – Optimal for enforceable instructions.
  • Discuss plans with family – Ensure everyone understands your wishes.
  • Inform your pet’s veterinarian – Update medical records with new guardian info.
  • Keep microchip/ID current – Keep registration in the guardian’s name.

While difficult to consider, having frank conversations and making concrete arrangements to provide for your pets is an essential step of responsible pet parenting.

With some time and guidance from an estate planning attorney, you can feel reassured your pets will be loved and cared for in the years ahead by a trusted guardian you select.

Your pets give you unconditional love and devotion every day. Take steps now to give them that same security in return—not just in your lifetime, but beyond.