If You Die, What Happens to Your Pets?

All too often, when people die unexpectedly, their beloved dogs and cats end up dying, also. Many people just assume that if something happens to them, a friend or relative will step up and take care of Spot or Fluffy.

Local rescuers recently had an “Aha!” moment when a benefactor to a local rescue group passed away without having made plans for his pets. That spurred one group to put together a presentation on providing for one’s pets after death. In fact, many animals end up in shelters where they are at risk of being killed when space is needed simply because the person who cared for them neglected to plan ahead to make sure that they would always be cared for.

Anna Finn Vinson told Shelter Me that she and her partner decided to do a presentation on estate planning for pets because of the need. She works with two groups in Lake County, Illinois. Spay and Stay is a group that advocates and facilitates the spaying and neutering of feral cats. They provide TNR help to those in Lake County. Recently, they helped a Beach Park trailer park with over 300 feral cats. (See “Over 300 cats in trailer park and the two women who are determined to save them“). Vinson reflected on the many animal lovers who die without having made preparations for their pets. She said she believes that the lack of provision for pets is often because of lack of knowledge. In the Lake County situation, “He had just donated to us, and he was the first to donate to an animal in need. If he had realized what he could do for his pets, he would have.”

Cat in need of rescue

Volunteers and shelter workers at shelters across the country have taken in family pets when someone dies and no one is willing or able to care for them. Often, this could have been avoided by simply making provisions in advance for the pets. But providing the means to care for a pet is important, too. Taking in an extra dog or cat and caring for it for a lifetime is expensive, and to leave money for the care of the animal is important. It also must be done legally. Telling a cousin or a friend that they will get money to care for the animal doesn’t hold water when the will is silent and makes no mention of any such provision.

Vinson said that most people don’t know the legal avenues that they can take to protect their pets. What she and her partner in her law practice plan to discuss is why everyone with animals needs estate planning. They will discuss what people do need and don’t need. There are different ways to protect your pets in Illinois (the laws in states vary).

Ben was rescued by author David Rosenfelt and his wife (who have dozens of rescued dogs) when his owner died and he ended up in a shelter.

Vinson pointed out many situations when even a provision in a will isn’t enough. “What if you are disabled or incapacitated? If you provided for your pets in a will, it wouldn’t have effect because you are still alive. What about going into a temporary facility?” If you give your pet to someone, you may have problems getting your pet back if there is nothing in writing.

She said that often people will come in when they are made executors of an estate for someone who died. Sometimes they say, “They have a pet.” Vinson or her partner will ask where the pet is and who is taking care of it. She mentioned one situation where the deceased lived in a gated community. The association wouldn’t let the executor in, but there were animals in the condo.

It’s also important to have information available about the medical history of the animals and their veterinary records. Otherwise, valuable time is wasted calling local veterinarians trying to find the one that had treated the animal and whether the dog or cat was on medication.  

Sheba is a cat whose owners both died. She was lucky — she ended up at Waukegan Animal Control, where the director, Susan Elliot, finds rescue for almost every animal they get. (See “Dedicated Shelter Director of Waukegan Police Animal Control in Illinois is Making a Difference“) Per Elliot, Sheba went to Black Dog Rescue and will be safe.

We all love our pets — they are like children. But unlike children, in most states, pets are considered personal property. Unless we provide for them, they will be at the mercy of our friends and relatives. And few will take in a sick or elderly animal unless they are also provided with the means to care for that animal.

If more shelters and rescues provided information about how to prevent one’s pets even after death, it might result in fewer animals being left at shelters. And every dog or cat saved from the shelter experience is a wonderful thing.

The Lake County presentation is open to anyone who wishes to attend. It will be on March 12 from 1:00 to 2:00 pm at the Mundelein High School, 1350 W. Hawley St., Mundelein, IL in Room B105. RSVP to wheeler.julie@comcast.net. (Sponsored by Spay and Stay)



Pamela Kramer

​Animal lover and rescuer. Lives with 4 cats, 4 dogs, 1 bird, 2 frogs and usually one foster animal (and very understanding husband). Reviews books (especially about animals) and educates children about compassion toward animals. Former household animals include rabbits, rats, and other assorted creatures. Also writes at pamelakramer.com