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Pet Guardianship 101

Over half of all Canadian households have pets — and if you’re one of the many Canadians who have cherished pets as part of their family, then pet guardianship is something worth considering when planning your estate.

What is pet guardianship?

Pet guardians are someone you select to care for your animals in the unlikely event that you pass before they do. However, don’t let the term “guardianship” fool you. While most pet owners consider their pets to be family, be mindful that the law doesn’t feel the same way. Let us explain…

Despite the strong bonds between pets and their owners, Canadian laws are clear that while we consider pets to be like children, well, they aren’t. That being said, just as you would plan for the legal care of your child in the event of your passing, you too can plan for the legal care of Fluffy or Fido.

A key difference between pets and children is that pets are property, legally speaking. You can’t gift a child to other people, but you can gift cats and dogs.

So, what do you do if you want to plan for your pet’s care knowing that they need more love and affection than just any old piece of mere property, like, say, those DVDs collecting dust in your storage locker? Luckily, the law allows for pet guardianship, which enables you to plan for your pet’s future.

How does pet guardianship work?

Understanding pet guardianship doesn’t have to be tricky. Although selecting the right person may feel the same as choosing a guardian for your human children, because pets are property, what you are actually doing is selecting someone who will receive your animal as a gift.

So, just as you can leave your car to your favourite niece, you can leave an animal to a specific family member or friend. Ideally, you would leave your prized pets to someone you know would care for them just as you had. Think of it more as if you were giving someone the gift a pet’s love as opposed to the obligation of the pet’s care.

Making sure your pet is provided for

Selecting a pet guardian is only part of the picture for seeing that your animal will be cared for. It’s important to remember that animal ownership is expensive, and pet guardians might not have the financial means to live up to your animal care standards.

Just about any animal owner will agree that animals aren’t cheap. We’d bet that most animal owners have ended up at the vet’s office when Fido takes his love for laundry socks a bit too far, or Fluffy’s got one too many hairballs (again). After all is said and done you usually end up going home with your precious—albeit shaken-up—pet, and a vet bill totaling hundreds of dollars.

Should you wish to leave some money behind to use towards caring for your animal (be that veterinary care or otherwise), the most straightforward option is to leave a one-time cash gift (known as a “cash legacy”) to your pet guardian.

Things to consider when selecting a pet guardian

As a loving pet parent, you know very well that having animals involves much more than just keeping them alive. And so, when picking the right pet guardian, it may help to consider the following:

  • Are they physically able to handle pet ownership?


    For example, can they physically manage long dog walks or cleaning a litter box without the need for help.

  • Will they live up to your expectations?


    For example, this could mean the difference between a 10-minute walk around the block and frequent visits to your local off-leash dog park.

  • If they have children, is your pet kid-friendly?


    For example, if your dog or cat are known to be the jealous type, maybe she or he would benefit from an adult only home.

  • Is there a certain environment your pet is accustomed to?


    For example, if your dog or cat is afraid of loud noises, maybe a home on a quiet residential street (as opposed to the busy city centre), or a space with fewer people in it, would make the best fit.

  • Have they already bonded with your pet?


    Selecting someone who already has an existing relationship with your pet could make this life transition easier for everyone involved—whether they have two legs or four.

These are just some of the things worth considering when selecting a pet guardian who will ensure your pet’s well-being.

Pet stewardship vs. pet guardianship

Don’t have anyone in mind who seems up to the task of being a pet guardian? Even though your in-laws love your dog, maybe they aren’t up to caring for him full time. Or, your best friend who loves your cat has a change in circumstances and can no longer promise to take Fluffy on (hey, it happens). Well, there is another option! You can always contact a humane society and inquire about available pet stewardship programs.

Pet stewardship is when an organization agrees to take your animals upon your passing, see to their care, and find them a new forever home.

Pet stewardship works very similarly to pet guardianship. For example, you would gift your cats or dogs to the pet steward along with any earmarked funds, just as you would a pet guardian. Upon receiving your pet, the pet steward would take them into their possession and see to their care until they find them a forever home—either through the shelter or foster system.

If you are considering a pet stewardship program, it is important you understand that particular program’s legal terms and requirements. Some questions you may first want to clarify:

  • What signed agreements, if any, are required outside of the relevant provisions in your Will?

  • What funds, if any, need to be transferred upon your death to the pet steward?

  • What policies or laws, if any, does the pet steward have to abide by vis-a-vis euthanasia?

  • Does the pet steward provide a foster care service, participate in a public or private shelter system, or another similar type of placement?

  • On average, how long does an animal stay in stewardship before finding a new owner?

When it comes to selecting a steward, ensure you understand your rights and responsibilities surrounding the process—the more information you have, the better.

Lastly, be aware that while local humane societies run pet stewardship programs, not all humane societies have one. So, if pet stewardship seems like the best fit for you, you may have to search for the right program which may or may not be local to you.

What if I don’t select a pet guardian?

Not selecting a pet guardian does not necessarily mean your pet will end up without care—but it does mean less certainty for you as an animal owner. In many provinces, including Ontario, without instructions otherwise, upon your passing, your pet will form part of the residue of your estate (along with your other property). This means that the same person who decides what to do with that DVD collection will be deciding where to put your pets.

Ultimately the decision of what to do with your pet is yours to make but be sure to include your wishes when completing your estate planning. We’re sure you’ll do right by your furry friend, whether that be pet guardianship, pet stewardship, or otherwise.

Make your Will today

Take care of your loved ones and give them peace of mind.
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