Pet Protection Agreements: Preparing for the Unexpected

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Preparing for the unexpected is certainly something that should be on every pet owner's radar. If you pass away, what will happen to your beloved pet(s)?

A survey conducted by the ASPCA found that only 17 percent of pet owners legally provide for their pets in their wills or in a pet trust. That's one of the reasons the ASPCA has entered into a partnership with LegalZoom.com, which allows pet parents the peace of mind that their animals will be legally protected in such an event.

The memory of the smiling black and white pit bull still haunts me when I think of what could happen to our six-pack of rescue dogs if something happened to us. The dog, rescued from an abusive situation, found himself orphaned when his dog mom died of cancer. She did not have a pet trust in place and the family friend eventually tired of boarding the dog while trying to find him a suitable home. The dog was taken to a kill shelter. After a social media campaign, he was adopted for a second time, only to be suddenly euthanized by his new family for snapping at another dog in the household.

I love pitties and the photo, which seemed to show him smiling while playing in the snow with his late mom, stands out among literally the hundreds of rescues I've encountered in shelters, dogs and cats that are there because their owners died.

"We find this happens too often, someone takes the animal to a shelter after the owner dies and they don't have a long life expectancy there," says Kim Bressant-Kibwe, counsel, trust and estates and planned giving for the ASPCA. "It's a shame to have a pet's life end that way after they were a loyal companion animal for years."

We don't have biological children and the will we drew up many years ago is out of date since my mother passed away. In any event, it didn't provide for our pets after our demise. I shudder, as I imagine it would be chaos as a tide of my husband's surviving parents and siblings and nieces and nephews on both sides put a claim as heirs to our property. As our estate entered probate, I'm quite sure our dogs would end up in shelters.

"We cannot assume our relatives or friends would provide for our pets," says Bressant-Kibwe. "As we saw, Leona Helmsley's brother didn't even want her dog."

A couple of years ago, we asked a close family childhood friend if he would be an executor of a pet trust, which would require him to manage our property, hire a caregiver so our dogs could remain at home and eventually liquidate the remaining assets.

Once we saved up the anticipated $1,500 to formalize the agreement with our friend in the form of a pet trust, we found another obstacle. Although our state is one that allows pet trusts, we could not find an attorney who either knew anything about them or who was willing to bother with them. Bressant-Kibwe says that 46 states have legal pet trust laws in place, but she says it's also not uncommon to have our experience and not either be able to afford the service, or find an attorney willing.

The Pet Protection Agreement on LegalZoom.com allows pet parents to provide for their pets not just in the case of their owner's demise, but also if they are incapacitated, which is also very important. We have a friend who had a stroke and while he laid in a coma with a poor prognosis, his sister, not knowing what to do with his dogs, came in from out of town and had all three euthanized. He recovered and now, some 15 years later, still regrets not having a plan in place for the care of his dogs.

The pet agreement provides for the care all of your current and future pets, allows you to leave funds from your estate for your pets and nominates pet guardians or a shelter. Prices start at just $39 and go up to $79, which allows you to make unlimited changes for one year and provides for electronic storage of the document.

Bressant-Kibwe says this really is a very good option for pet parents and is legally binding. She also suggests that you visit this link at ASPCA to ensure you follow all of the steps necessary to provide for your pet.

Once you've asked a friend or relative, as we did, to act as your pet's guardian, Bressant-Kibwe suggests that you also make sure that all of your estate planning documents, such as your last will and testament and your financial plans for your pet (such as funds from life insurance), are consistent.

"Don't put all of your eggs in one basket with the pet protection plan," says Bressant-Kibwe. "The pet protection agreement reinforces what's in your will, make sure if you're making duplicate arrangements, all of the documents and beneficiaries are consistent."


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