Who Will Care For My Pets When I Die?

When people have children, one of the first things they do is make a Will. They write their Will because they can’t imagine their children without a guardian, and they want to set up a stable environment that can cushion the trauma of losing parents at such a young age.

While choosing a guardian for your children should take centre stage when drafting your Last Will and Testament, guardianship of your pets and proper pet care shouldn’t be overlooked. While 76% of pet owners feel it’s important to care for your pet in the event of death or illness, only 7% actually have a plan in place. Time and time again, people tend to forget their dogs and cats, and other animals when they’re drafting their Will.

But is it really that important to make sure you consider your pets when you’re drafting your Will? Wouldn’t someone close to you, someone you like or someone related to you, just step up and adopt your pet into a new home after you pass?

Not necessarily. Sad news emerging from the pandemic––as if we needed more––is revealing that animal shelters are filling up with dogs and cats whose owners went to the hospital with COVID and couldn’t make it back to their homes. In some cases, shelters were able to connect with the owner’s family to seek new guardianship or receive instructions about what to do next––but not always.

Keep reading to find out how to make sure your pets are taken care of if you get sick or pass away. The process for assigning long-term guardianship doesn’t need to be an ordeal with a laundry list of instructions, but it may be more complex than you think.

Is pet guardianship covered in my Will?

As strange as it may sound, pets are considered “property”. So while you don’t legally name a guardian for your pet, you can choose to leave them to a specific person, who in reality will assume the rights reserved for a new guardian in pet care. When you draft your Will, you’ll be able to name someone you trust to care for your pets after a proper search. You may have some family members you trust or a friend or neighbour who loves your beloved pet.

Before you write your Will, choose a person you trust to take care of your pets as part of your estate planning and ask them if they’re willing to take on the role of pet guardian. You never want someone to feel surprised that you’ve entrusted them with your dog or cat, because they have the right to refuse the role.

Even if you think your guardian will accept the role with enthusiasm, always search for a backup in case circumstances change. Conventional opinion among most lawyers is that you should review your Will every few years to make sure it’s still reflective of your current circumstances––but that doesn’t mean everyone remembers to do this. To plan for your own forgetfulness, designate a backup new owner in case your primary can’t assume the legal responsibility.

While it’s advisable to be as specific as possible when you’re naming beneficiaries, the same isn’t necessarily the case for pets. When you’re drafting your Will, you may want to say that you’re leaving your “dog” or “cat” or “snake” with the new owner, rather than naming the pet. That way, if your pet dies and you get a new one before you can update your Will, your pet won’t be left without a home.

Can I set up a pet trust?

When it comes to pets, people often want to plan for the financial side of legal guardianship: making sure there is money available to your pet guardian so they can pay for food, medication, and other veterinary care for your pet when you die.

In the U.S. there are many stories about people setting up a pet trust. In Ontario, however, you can’t set up a pet trust. Pets are considered property and therefore can’t be the legal beneficiary of a trust, even if the trustee (the individual managing the money) is a person. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have some options for making sure your pet is cared for.

If you really trust someone to take care of your pet, you can leave them a cash legacy. This means the person is a beneficiary and receives a lump sum for the care of your pet. You can specify in your Will that they only receive the cash legacy if they accept your pet––but after that, no one can force the new owner to spend your cash on pet care.

You can also set up a trust for the pet guardian, not the pet. That means you need to choose a trustee to manage the trust for the beneficiary, your pet guardian. You also have the option to choose backup trustees and guardians as part of the trust.

When you set up this kind of trust, you’ll also want to search for a residuary beneficiary: the person who receives the rest of the money in case your original beneficiary dies and there is still money in the trust. This person should be different than your appointed pet owner, so as not to encourage a withholding of care for your pet so they can cash out later.

No matter which option you choose, it’s important to talk to your pet guardian before you die about how you’d like them to spend the cash. You should specify that the new owner use the money to pay for the following:

Feeding and grooming costs

Cat litter and dog food aren’t cheap. If you’ve ever spent more than twenty dollars on a bag of sand for your cat’s toilet, you know the irritation of realizing you’ve paid for … just that.

If you want your guardian to pay for special food or high-end litter crystals, the least you can do is leave them some funds to help with the costs associated with pet care in their new home.

Routine vet check-ups

Your pet may be young and spry now, but hopefully, they live to a ripe age. Even if your routine veterinarian bills aren’t high now, they may not always stay that way––and your pet’s caregiver will appreciate the help if your pets need surgery or medication.

Emergency veterinary care

Has your dog ever eaten way too much chocolate and had to be rushed to the emergency veterinary office for treatment? If that can happen on your watch, it can happen to your pet guardian, too. Make sure to provide enough of a cushion to account for life’s mistakes.

End-of-life care

You may not be around to see the end of your pet’s life, but you can ensure they’re comfortable well before they die with some financial help. One of the best gifts you can provide your pet is the means to die without pain or enjoy a good quality of life if they get sick.

What if I don’t have anyone who will be my pet’s guardian?

If you find yourself unable to leave your pet to any family or friends, as part of your estate planning process you can ask a local shelter if they take animals after their owner dies. Not every shelter has one, but some have animal stewardship programs that can help make sure your dogs and cats continue to be cared for and find new owners outside of family or friends.

The Ottawa Humane Society, for example, has a pet stewardship program you can set up as part of your planning process. To enroll, you would sign an agreement that specifies care instructions. But just a warning: the program is expensive, with an enrollment fee of $10,000.

But if you have the money and can’t find anyone to take care of your pet in the event of your death, the program is a great way to ensure your pet at least has a temporary home. The program states that upon your death, the shelter would take immediate custody and place your pet in foster care in good time as part of the process of finding a true home. The shelter also doesn’t euthanize animals except when there is a serious disease or behavioural issues.

But whether it’s finding a neighbour or asking a distant relative who loves animals to step up in the event of your death, you’ll want to consider all possible options before committing to an animal shelter. Many animal shelters provide the best care they can, but it won’t be the same as the comforts of a loving home.

There is no law in Canada that prevents people from euthanizing healthy pets. Pets are considered property, meaning their owners can decide what happens to them, even in death. You’ll want to do everything in your power to provide your pet the best chance at long, healthy existence, even if it’s without your loving presence.

What happens to pets if I die without a Will?

If you die without a Will, you’ve died intestate––meaning the court decides what happens to your estate and your pets in the event of your death. Pets are considered property, meaning you own them just like you own your car or house.

When you die intestate, your estate (meaning all your property, including any pets) gets distributed as follows:

If you have a spouse but no children

Your spouse will inherit 100% of your assets.

If you have no spouse or kids

Your parents (or one living parent) will inherit everything.

If you have a spouse and children

Your spouse will inherit a portion of your estate (also known as the “preferential share”), and your children share the remainder equally. These proportions depend on the total value of your assets.

If you have kids but no spouse

Your estate will be divided equally among them.

If you don’t have a spouse, children, or living parents

Your brothers and sisters will inherit everything equally. If you have no siblings, it is split equally between your nieces and/or nephews. If you don’t have nieces or nephews, your cousins will inherit your assets.