Do You Know What Will Happen to Your Pet if Something Happens to You?

The lack of planning could leave our pets not only mourning us, but living the rest of their lives in a shelter cage — if they're lucky. Most of us don’t plan for the unexpected.

We don’t leave the house every morning thinking it possibly could be our last time doing so or that we should make preparations if it were.

“We recommend that you have one person who knows you and your pets who’s reachable if something happened to you so they can go get your pets —a neighbor, a family member, a friend,” explains KC Theisen, director of pet care issues at the Humane Society of the United States .

“If nobody knows that there’s a pet to be taken care of, it could be tragic.”

If the person lives alone, for example, got into an accident and went into a coma, and nobody knows there’s a pet to be fed or walked, they could be left alone in the house and die of starvation.

If someone was to die unexpectedly and leave a pet behind, if no friend or family member claims the pet as their own, they are surrendered into the shelter system and may not ever come out.

“If the police or fire departments take someone to the hospital from their home, they’ll call animal control and they’ll take the animal,” says Theisen.

“Depending on the state of the person, either they can or family members can go and get [the pets] and if not, they’ll get surrendered into the shelter system.”

The HSUS estimates between 100,000 and 500,000 animals end up in shelters each year because they outlived their owners .

Considering that 56 percent of dogs and 71 percent of cats that enter animal shelters each year are euthanized , a surviving pet’s odds aren’t great.

To ensure that pets have a happy life after their guardians are gone, precautions then must be made.

The ASPCA suggests carrying a wallet alert card that will be seen by authorities or medical personnel when looking for an ID.

It warns the reader that the person carrying it has pets who need care and gives the contact information for possible emergency caregivers.

For a more permanent solution, however, a legal document is recommended.


“You need a document that’s going to be valid in all states regardless of the owner’s condition so the pet is taken care of,” explains Rachel Hirschfeld , an attorney specializing in estate planning and a passionate animal advocate.

“So many people have a will but a will does the pet no good if you don’t die.”

A will also costs money since it needs to be done by a lawyer, something that deters many from ever getting one, Hirschfeld noticed in her experience. 

Another problem she often saw was documents done by lawyers who weren’t up to date with the latest developments in animal law, which still considers pets property even though new laws are slowly changing that .

“In the eyes of the law, they look at [a pet] like they look at a couch,” says Hirschfeld who says the outlook dates back to when people owned farm animals, crucial for trade and survival. 

“Now animals are more like family but you need to treat it within the law so you need an animal lawyer who knows the laws that are coming into effect.”

Seeing those issues over the years, Hirschfeld then created the Hirschfeld Pet Trust , a “fill in the blanks” type of legal document available for download on LegalZoom that covers all the bases regarding pet care if the owner is for some reason unable to. 

She recommends people get one and once it arrives in the mail, give a copy of it to anyone who could help make sure their pets are safe.

“Make copies and send one to everyone —the vet, the dog walker, the maid, the neighbor, everyone,” she says noting she’s not exaggerating.

“It’s better than putting it in a vault because who knows when they’ll find it there.”

The HSUS also recommends specifying in those types of documents not just who will take care of one’s pets, but also how, and then leaving them the financial means to do so.

“You might think, ‘uncle Joe really loves my dog, he could take care of my dog,’ but in reality uncle Joe might not be able to afford taking care of your dog,” says Theisen.

“So it’s important to have those conversations and write it down that whoever gains responsibility of your pets doesn’t have a financial burden and how you will help them.”

Read more:

Estate Planning For Pets


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