Including Your Dog in Your Will

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I, along with many others, were saddened to hear that Carrie Fisher had passed away.  However, I was also relieved that Ms. Fisher had taken proactive measures to provide a will that provided for her beloved dog, Gary.  The will named a relative who had agreed to take care of Gary in case anything ever happened to Ms. Fisher.  Gary is lucky that all his needs will continue to be met by a caring family member after Ms. Fisher’s death.  However, not all dogs are so fortunate.

We typically prepare ourselves emotionally for our pets’ passing, but we don’t always consider what will happen to our pet(s) if we die – or become incapacitated - before them. It’s important to have all your wishes for your pet’s future detailed in formal legal documents.  A verbal agreement with a caregiver by itself is not legally binding, so be sure to outline what you expect from the caregiver and stipulate any monetary compensation for him or her in your will.   And even that might not be enough:  it could take time for a court to recognize a will, which could mean that your pet’s new caretaker might not be recognized for days - or even weeks.  To avoid this contingency, consider preparing a supplemental document, such as a trust, which will take effect immediately upon your death or incapacitation.  It also prevents the funds you designate for your pet from getting tangled up and disputed as part of the will.  Another document to consider is a power of attorney which would take effect if you become incapacitated.  A power of attorney is easier to set up and less formal than a will.  However, it is an easy way to document who will be taking care of your pet or responsible for finding your pet a permanent home.  Once you draw up your will, trust, power of attorney, or any combination thereof, make sure to give a copy to your executor and the pet’s new primary caregiver.  You may want to consult with a lawyer about all this so you can have peace of mind that everything is in order and legally binding.

If a friend or family member is willing to commit to taking care of your pet for the remainder of your pet’s life, then you have a wonderful person in your life.  You will also want to list alternative caregivers in case the primary caregiver is no longer available.  If you have a hard time finding a caregiver who can commit, then see if you can find temporary caregivers.  Once you identify a caregiver, provide him or her with keys to your home, your pet’s feeding schedule, veterinary information, and other information about your dog’s daily routine. Check in with all potential caregivers from time to time to confirm that they are still willing to take on the responsibility if something happens to you.  Make your wishes about life or death situations for your pet clear: Deciding to euthanize because of a pet’s grave illness, old age or chronic pain is a hard and heart-breaking decision that will be easier for the caregiver if he or she knows your wishes.

If you don’t have a friend or family member willing to take care of your pet, you can entrust the task of finding a home to the executor of your estate, or interview pet organizations that specialize in pet re-homing or are willing to take in the pet for the rest of its life. If you have multiple pets, it may be difficult to find one caregiver willing to take in all of them, so consider the possibility that you may need to divide up your pets among multiple caregivers.

If you do become incapacitated or pass away, you want someone to be able to quickly realize that you have a pet at home who needs care.  Some people carry an “alert card” in their wallet that lists the names and phone numbers of emergency pet caregivers and other information.  What I chose to do was purchase a dog tag that looks like a driver’s license and includes my address and the dog’s picture.  I keep this attached to my keychain so that anyone who finds me will know that I have a dog, what he looks like, and where to locate him.  

Without specific provisions, your pet could end up in a shelter, and even possibly euthanized if no one adopts your pet.

Let’s move on to situations where both you and your pet are healthy, but you need a pet sitter when you go out of town.  Most owners leave their pet sitters with their house keys, emergency phone numbers, feeding and care instructions, etc.  However, most owners don’t think to include a living will that authorizes service at the veterinary clinic in case no one can get a hold of you during an emergency. A living will does not require legal or even formal paperwork.  Basically, it’s a couple of sentences that authorizes the person who brought in the pet to proceed with veterinary care if you can’t be reached.

For example, it can be as simple as:

I, [Pet Owner's Name], authorize [pet sitter’s name], to take my dog, [your dog's name], to veterinarian care for any issues that [your dog's name] may have that require medical attention.  I also authorize the veterinary clinic to provide medical care to my dog, [your dog's name], if needed up to [x dollars] before I receive direct notification.

However, if the prognosis is poor or life-threatening, or if my pet is in significant pain that cannot be medically managed, I authorize humane euthanasia.

Thank you,

[Pet Owner's Name]




If you want to provide additional details in your living will, you can include items like the following:

•    Whether or not you authorize CPR to be performed on your pet
•    Whether or not you authorize any life-saving medications
•    Whether or not you authorize a feeding tube, intubation or a respirator while under anesthesia

For more information, contact the HSUS’s Office of the General Counsel, at 202-452-1100, ext. 332.