Dallas animal law attorney Yolanda Eisenstein answers questions on how to safeguard your pet in the event of your death:
What happens to your pet should you die without arranging for future care?
Animals are considered "property" under the law, so your pet becomes part of your estate. If you have no will and no one volunteers, perhaps your family or friends would try to find a home or take your pet to a rescue group or shelter that would look for a home. If you have a will, hopefully your executor would try to find a home for your pet. Unfortunately, your companion could end up in a shelter, then euthanized.
Is a verbal agreement sufficient if you trust the person?
I do not advise it in these situations. While well-meaning, people forget, situations change, and without a written document there is no record of an agreement. And never assume that your family and friends will "take care of Fluffy." If someone has agreed to care for your animal, it is a good idea to remember this person in your will. Even a small monetary bequest or personal item sends the message that you don't take their generosity lightly. If the person is not financially secure, you should leave enough money to cover the care of your pet if possible.
What is a pet trust and what safeguards does it put in place?
A pet trust is a legally recognized document that allows you to provide financial support for the care of your pet in the event of your death or disability. They work very much like regular trusts, except your pet is the beneficiary. The safeguards are the establishment of a financial fund that is only to be used for the care of your animal and a "caretaker" who will physically take care of your pet. Almost every state has a pet trust law. You can confirm whether your state has a pet trust with a local attorney or at the Animal Legal and Historical Center at animallaw.info.
To save money, is it acceptable to use standardized forms?
I don't advise it. Pet trusts are state specific, so you would have to know that the form complies with your state's laws. Also, every
animal is unique, and I have found that a "one size fits all" approach doesn't work. Pet trusts are still fairly new and working with a lawyer will help assure you that it has been drafted in a way that will hold up in court if necessary.
How detailed should you be in your instructions for the care of your pet?
You can be as detailed as you like, but the "musts" are to provide instructions regarding the health of your pet—veterinary care, feeding, exercise, etc.—and specify when it is acceptable to euthanize your pet. Some of my clients require the written opinion of two veterinarians before allowing euthanasia.
What are some of the more interesting animals who have benefited from a will or trust?
Birds and African turtles are probably the most relevant as they can live much longer than their owners.
This article is excerpted from USA TODAY Pet Guide magazine. The special publication contains articles on pet care, animal welfare, trends, training and more. Find it at magazine newsstands across the USA and Canada or at petguide.usatoday.com.