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How to provide for pets in case of owner's death or an emergency

You try your best to keep them healthy and happy, but who will step in if something happens to you?

05/25/2012 7:19 PM

05/27/2012 5:56 PM

With summer on its way, so, too, is the start of vacation season. And for many local pet owners, that can mean leaving their furry loved ones behind as they head out of town for a week or maybe even a month.

Try as pet owners might to plan accordingly for impending time away from their pets, they might not always consider planning for the possibility of unforeseen events. An unexpected accident or illness or even the death of a pet owner can leave their beloved pets' future in jeopardy. Without a proper plan, pets left with no caregiver or resources run the risk of being sent to a shelter or even being euthanized.

Because of this, many humane organizations, such as the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Humane Society of the United States, urge pet owners to set up formal pet care plans. These plans can include everything from designating a new caregiver for your pet to letting the new caregiver know vital information, such as any health problems or what food is preferred.

A plan in place

Kim Bressant-Kibwe, trusts and estates counsel for the ASPCA, says not only is it important for pet owners to set up a plan immediately, but it is also important to know that there are several plan options. One of the most popular options is setting up a pet trust.

Not much different than a regular trust, pet trusts are described as legally sanctioned arrangements providing for the care and maintenance of your pet in the event that you, the pet owner, become disabled or die. As of this year, 46 states, along with the District of Columbia, have created some kind of pet trust law.

Texas' pet trust law, which was enacted in 2005, states that a trust may be made for the care of an animal or animals during their owner's lifetime. It goes on to say that the pet trust dissolves upon the death of the animal, or in the case of several pets, upon the death of the last surviving animal covered by the trust.

Know your trusts

Many pet owners include their pets in their wills, but a pet trust is usually the better option, Bressant-Kibwe says. That is because wills can often be contested, placing the pet's future in limbo pending a legal resolution.

Most pet trusts are one of the following kinds: statutory pet trust, honorary trust and traditional legal trust.

When putting together a pet trust, Bressant-Kibwe says, it is important to consider all the costs that you might incur, including fees for setting up the trust, paying for the trustee and setting aside finances for the lifestyle that you have designated for your pet.

Bressant-Kibwe also recommends the use of a pet protection agreement. A legally-enforceable document created by the pet owner, pet protection agreements outline a plan for the continuing care of your pets if you are no longer able to provide for them because of illness or death. These low-cost agreements are often considered an alternative to the more expensive pet trust and are usually drawn up between the pet owner and a third party.

Economical options

Even for pet owners who might not have the financial means to set up a formal, legally binding pet care plan, there are still lots of no-cost routes that can be taken to ensure a happy future for your pet. Facilities such as Texas A&M University's Stevenson Companion Animal Life Care Center take in pets whose owners are no longer able to care for them and provide for their physical, emotional and medical needs. The Humane Society website also suggests five simple and no-cost precautions that any pet owner can take without drawing up legal papers

They include:

1. Find at least two responsible friends or relatives who have agreed to be your pet's temporary emergency caregivers in the event that something unexpected happens to you. (Bressant-Kibwe says having at least two potential caregivers selected is almost essential in the case your first choice falls through.) Once you've selected these individuals, make sure to provide them with a copy of keys to your home, any feeding and care instructions, the name of your pet's veterinarian and any information regarding permanent care provisions you have made for your pet.

2. Make sure that your neighbors, friends and relatives know exactly how many pets you have, as well as the names and contact numbers of the people who have agreed to serve as your pet's emergency caregivers. Your emergency caregivers should also know how to contact each other.

3. Post removable emergency notices on your doors or windows specifying how many pets you have, as well as what type they are. The purpose of these notices is to alert emergency-response personnel in the case of a fire or other home emergency.

4. Place a removable notice listing your emergency contact names and phone numbers on the inside of your front and back doors.

Important steps

Regardless of the plan you choose for you pets, Bressant-Kibwe says, the most important thing a pet owner can do is to start putting a plan into play, even if it's just creating a pet dossier or binder filled with papers detailing information about your pet, such as their likes and dislikes. Should a pet owner have any questions regarding future plans for his or her pet, Bressant-Kibwe says, look no further than the ASPCA hotline. It has lawyers ready and available to help you get the answers that you might need for planning purposes, she says.

Although there have been no official studies yet on the number of pet trusts that have been created, Bressant-Kibwe says that the ASPCA has been hearing lots of positive feedback.

"The trend I have seen is that people are becoming more and more aware of their responsibility as a pet parent," Bressant-Kibwe says.

At the end of the day, Bressant-Kibwe says, the best thing pet owners can give themselves is the peace of mind that their pet will be all right without them.

"We take good care of our pets when we're alive," says Bressant-Kibwe, "so we should do so even when we are not."

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