Pets

Pet parents: Here's what to consider when adding a furry family member to your will

Explore the options to ensure your best friend is cared for when you’re gone.

Explore the options to ensure your best friend is cared for when you’re gone

person sitting at computer desk, working on computer while orange cat sleeps in their arms.
(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

As a pet owner, you know it's important to plan for the unexpected, like an injury at the dog park, anxious behaviour at a new vet's clinic or a swift escape from underneath the backyard fence. Yet, there's one major scenario pet owners don't often consider — and that's what will happen to your best friend if you're no longer around to care for them.

"Our beloved animals, their lifespan is a lot shorter than ours, so in most cases we're the ones preparing to say goodbye to them," said Ashley Molnar, spokesperson for the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and Humane Society. "We don't think about the fact that life can turn unexpectedly and it could be us that's gone before them."

Molnar recommended that pet owners put a plan in place that outlines how an animal will be cared for if your life or health circumstances change. 

Laurie Wilson, donor relations and legacy manager for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, also said it's crucial for pet owners to plan ahead. Wilson has heard of instances where an individual didn't include information about pets in their will, and the executor was left struggling to find homes for the animals.

Here are some key considerations and helpful tips about adding an animal in your will for pet owners eager to ensure their furry companions are always cared for.

How to get started

If you already have a will, the next step is deciding how you'd want your pet to be cared for. But if you need to create a will the best option is to contact a lawyer. Michael Klaray, an Edmonton-based lawyer who specializes in estate planning, has helped clients add a pet in their will. "Animals, or pets, are property under the law," Klaray said. And with a will, he explained, you're appointing an executor who is responsible for disposing of your property in a certain manner.

While lawyers offer the expertise needed to create a will, they can be a costly resource. Klaray suggested that pet owners on a budget connect with nearby law schools to learn if there are pro bono programs that meet your needs. Klaray, for example, volunteers for the Seniors Association of Greater Edmonton. "If you're a low-income senior," he said, "there's a roster of lawyers, including myself, who will come and essentially do your will for free."

Depending on where you live, Klaray said the city or town could have pro bono programs for wills and estates. For pet owners wanting to create their own will, there are books and do-it-yourself kits that can provide a useful framework. 

Leaving your pet to a family member or friend

The next step for many pet owners is deciding if a family member or a friend is the right person to care for your animal. "You always want to consider your pet's lifestyle and their personality when choosing that person," said Molnar. "If you have a senior cat who likes to sleep a lot … you might not want to choose a family that's very active [or] a busy household with young children." 

Once you've decided who you'd like that person to be, Molnar said, you need to let them know about the plan, ask if they'd be willing to adopt your animal and go over all of the needs that your animal has as well as their personality traits. 

Emma McArthur, a lawyer in Victoria, B.C., has encouraged her clients to not only ask one person to care for a pet, but to also consider having a backup. "You can give a pet to a person, and say if that person is not willing to care for your pet or is not able to care for your pet at that time, then [you] leave it to a different person." Both of these people should be legal adults, she added. 

According to McArthur, pet owners can leave a written wish that a gift of money be given to the person who has agreed to care for a pet. Another option is to leave money as a trust. "It's basically saying this money is going to be held aside by my trustee and my executor to be used for this purpose. That trustee has to dole it out over time for the maintenance of the pet," she said. McArthur recommends leaving a wish when the sums of money left behind aren't large, as in for the care of cats and dogs. "The ongoing expenses for these pets aren't extreme," she said. If the animal is a horse or something more expensive, however, and the amount of money left behind for their care is large, like $100,000, then the lawyer advises a trust to ensure the animal's care throughout its lifetime. 

Choosing the right shelter

If family members and friends aren't available to care for an animal, pet owners can leave a wish that an animal be placed with a shelter, if it will accept them at the time.

McArthur suggested visiting local shelters to ask what would happen to a pet surrendered because the owner passed away. "Do they have a foster program where the animal might get to live in somebody's home while it's waiting for a permanent one of its own?" she asked. "Are they a shelter that has a time limit on how long [an animal]can be there waiting for a home [before] the animal is euthanized? Find a shelter that aligns with your ethos." 

Klaray recommended leaving a donation to a shelter or charity that can be conditional on them taking your pet. 

For Wilson, a simple solution is the pet stewardship programs offered by most Humane Societies. "They will take custody of your animal when you pass away and use the money you may have set aside in your will to care for them," she said. "They would find foster care for them, [and] they'd find someone to adopt them."


Jacqueline Martinz is a freelance writer in Toronto. She loves exploring the city and staying active with her dog, Oliver.

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