The best way to make sure your wishes are fulfilled is by making formal arrangements that specifically cover the care of your pet. It's not enough that long ago your friend verbally promised to take in your animal or even that you've decided to leave money to your friend for that purpose. Work with an attorney to draw up a special will, trust, or other document to provide for the care and ownership of your pet, as well as the money necessary to care for her.
First, decide whether you want all your pets to go to one person, or whether different pets should go to different people. If possible, keep pets who have bonded with one another together. When selecting caregivers, consider partners, adult children, parents, brothers, sisters, and friends who have met your pet and have successfully cared for pets themselves. Also name alternate caregivers in case your first choice becomes unable or unwilling to take your pet. Be sure to discuss your expectations with potential caregivers so they understand the large responsibility of caring for your pet. Remember, the new owner will have full discretion over the animal's care -- including veterinary treatment and euthanasia -- so make sure you choose a person you trust implicitly and who will do what is in the best interest of your pet.
Stay in touch with the designated caregivers and alternates. Over time, people's circumstances and priorities change, and you want to make sure that the arrangements you have made continue to hold from the designated caregivers' vantage points. If all else fails, it is also possible to direct your executor or personal representative, in your will, to place the animal with another individual or family (that is, in a noninstitutionalized setting). Finding a satisfactory new home can take several weeks of searching, so again, it is important to line up temporary care.
You also have to know and trust your executor and provide useful, but not unrealistically confining, instructions in your will. You should also authorize your executor to expend funds from your estate for the temporary care of your pet as well as for the costs of looking for a new home and transporting the animal to it. The will should also grant broad discretion to your executor in making decisions about the animal and in expending estate funds on the animal's behalf.
Most humane organizations do not have the space or funds to care for your pet indefinitely and cannot guarantee that someone will adopt your animal, although some may be able to board and care for your pet temporarily until he can be transferred to his designated caregiver. There are, however, a few organizations that specialize in long-term care of pets of deceased owners. For a fee or donation, these "pet retirement homes" or "sanctuaries" may agree to find your pet a new home or care for your pet until she dies. Be aware, however, that pets are companion animals who need lots of care and affection; they may suffer from long-term confinement in such facilities. Your pet will not want to be institutionalized any more than you would want to be.
Before making any formal arrangements, visit the organization to see how animals are cared for, where they are confined, who looks after them, when they are socialized and exercised, and what policies and procedures exist regarding care at the facility and placement with a new family. Also consider what might happen to your pet if the organization were to suffer funding or staff shortages. If you decide to entrust the care of your pet to an organization, choose a well-established organization that has a good record of finding responsible homes quickly.
Being concerned about what will happen to your pet after your death is normal. But some people take this concern to extremes, requesting that their pet be euthanized out of fear that no one else will care for the animal appropriately. When an owner puts this request in his will, that provision is often ruled invalid by the legal system when the animal is young or in good health and when other humane alternatives are available.
There are some cases when euthanasia may be appropriate. If a pet is very old or requires extensive treatment for a health condition, for example, it may be unfair to both the pet and your designated caregiver to insist on indefinite care. That's why it's important to choose a responsible caregiver and thoroughly discuss the animal's condition and needs so that the caregiver can make the best decision after you're gone.
Continued on page 4: Seeking Legal Assistance