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Estate Planning is for the Dogs! (and Cats and Birds and Horses and...)

Updated: Jan 30

by Margrit Lent Parker

Picture of a horse and a dog

Originally published in the latest issue of Carbon Valley Life

We all love our dogs, cats, horses, and other favorite animals. Statistics show that, on average, we shell out more than $1,000 annually per pet to give them great lives and keep them healthy. For horses, some estimates are that the average annual cost to care for one equine friend is $4,000.

It’s clear; we devote a lot of love and money to the present wellbeing of our animals and our relationships. But how much time have you spent ensuring your animals’ wellbeing in the future when you are not around to care for them?

We assume a special role when we take responsibility for the life of another living being. And that role includes planning for that animal’s future when we are not in it.

This kind of planning encompasses expected near term needs as well as possible long-term contingencies. It ranges from having good how-to lists for day to-day care when you are out of town to more comprehensive contingency planning for when you are suddenly unavailable, such as a hospital stay or if you die before your animals do. Let’s consider the different scenarios and degrees of planning:

• Planning for trips out of town and planning for a backup caregiver in an emergency. Does your caregiver have access to your home and adequate instructions? Here's a great starter resource for DIY planning by New York animal law attorney and mediator, Debra Hamilton.

Planning for extended periods of incapacity. Do you have clear, written, enforceable instructions, such as in a Power of Attorney, giving your agent the ability to care for and pay for your animals’ needs? Once you lack the capacity to provide these instructions, it is too late. Others may decide the fate of your animals in a way that is contrary to your wishes, such as surrendering them to a shelter or euthanasia.

Planning for the transfer of ownership and care after your death. Your animals can be an important part of planning your will, which can establish who you give your animals to. Some people leave their pets to a shelter or humane society with a reputable and trustworthy program for finding new loving homes. Two examples are Denver Dumb Friends League’s Pet Guardianship Program and Denver Cat Care Society’s Nine Lives Guardianship Program. Or, perhaps it is important to you that your animals stay with your minor children while they grow up. Your will, carefully drafted, can address how to make this happen and minimize the risk that the animals will be given away. Planning for your animals after your death can be especially important for animals with long life spans that are more likely to outlive you, such as some turtles that, when well cared for, can live 40-50 years or more, and some parrots that live 60 or more years.

Pet trusts. If you are particularly concerned about what will happen to your animals when you are incapacitated or after you are gone, you may even want to set up a ‘pet trust’ with detailed instructions that designates a caregiver and a trustee and sets aside funds to care for your animals for the rest of their lives. Many of us have heard of the infamous Leona Helmsley, who attempted to leave $12 million in trust for her dog Trouble. That was excessive (the court reduced the trust to $2 million, which still seems excessive!), and no amount of trust planning can prevent all possible problems. Still, stories abound of abandonment and euthanasia of a deceased person’s beloved pets, and they give justification to the existence and use of trusts in the right circumstances.

Just as no two individuals are the same, no two sets of circumstances are the same. When you start to think about planning for animal care during periods of incapacity and after your death, thinking carefully about the contingencies you want to prepare for. Consulting with an attorney can ensure that your planning documents will work in practice and are tailored to your needs.

As you can see, estate planning is not just about putting in writing your wishes and instructions for your personal medical needs, your personal financial needs, and for the benefit of your human family and dependents. An important additional piece of the planning puzzle is your non-human dependents, those animals whose survival and welfare depend on you and the decisions you make for them. They give us so much—we owe it to them to plan!

Margrit Lent Parker practices law in Firestone providing estate planning and business legal services. After over a decade of commuting to Denver, she is thrilled to now be filling a need by serving the Carbon Valley community where she lives with her husband and young son. When not helping clients, Margrit is outside with her family, whether enjoying the great outdoors or gardening at home.


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