Four-Legged Friends and Your Estate

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What if You Cross the Rainbow Bridge First?

What would happen to your animals if you suddenly died?  An accident or sudden illness can take us when we think we still have plenty of time to “get our affairs in order”.  While our spouses and children are able to eventually re-adjust their lives without us, our pets and livestock cannot…….without some aforethought and a bit of our planning on their behalf.

As a horse rescue volunteer, I have received many heartbreaking calls for help with what to do with the horses of a spouse or family member who has passed away.  While that owner was alive, they loved their horses dearly.  Now that they are gone, it is almost as if the horses are in limbo.  This would be devastating to the owner, and yet they never took the time to plan for their pets or horses.  It causes a great deal of stress for the surviving spouse, family members and friends as they scramble to find a solution. 

Spouses and grown children often do not have the means, living situation, desire or patience to adopt your animals.  Dogs and cats often end up in shelters.  Like their owners, they may be elderly and in need of special care.  They may have quirks that you are aware of, yet would make them hard to place with another owner, such as fear of men or aggression toward children or other animals.  They might have special dietary or medical needs.  They might have hearing loss, which can be misunderstood as disobedience.  These “problems”, if not known beforehand, might lead to the animal being returned to a shelter, which is in itself traumatic.  Dogs, and sometimes cats, form strong bonds with their owners and are known to grieve for them when they pass away.  They need kind and safe homes to live out their lives.  

Horses are put in an even more precarious position when an owner dies without planning for their welfare.  Horse rescues and sanctuaries receive many heartbreaking requests to take or “re-home” horses after an owner has died.  The surviving spouse or grown children of an elderly decedent who leaves horses behind are often at a total loss as to what to do with them.  They do not have the desire, health, knowledge or means to carry on with the care of the horses.  They often do not know the age, history or training of the horse.  Many times, these left-behind horses have not been ridden or even worked with for years or ever, yet they were beloved and cared-for until the owner died.  Not only does this make it more difficult to place the horses, but it could put rescue personnel in danger if a horse is not amenable to being caught or handled.

Livestock such as sheep, goats, cattle and such are a little bit easier to deal with, since they generally are not pets.  Yet their outcomes deserve planning, too.  Your local 4-H or FFA can be contacted for advice.

Planning for the fate and future of your much-loved pets and horses is not difficult.  It just takes sitting down and writing-out the following:

  • The animal’s name and description (colorings, markings).  Be sure to include the year it was born, or the age on such and such a date.  For dogs, a copy of the license is helpful.  For horses, a bill of sale or brand inspection paper is essential for transport and transfer of ownership.  Any pedigree or registration papers should be included.
  • Give a brief description of the personality of the animal – is it friendly, shy, aggressive, etc.  Be sure to include any red flags or “Do’s and Don’ts”.  The more honest you are, the better.  You want your animal to be loved and understood.  If it has bad habits, it is better for the new or prospective owner to be aware.
  • Describe any training or activity that the animal has had, and how recently it occurred.  If, say, a horse has not been ridden in 10 years, that is an important thing to note.  In our horse rescue, homeless horses have run the gamut from wild and unbroken to pedigreed past champion.
  • Give a brief run-down of the animal’s daily routine and feeding.  What brand of dog/cat food?  Is the dog okay alone in the home?  What and how often is the horse fed?  Does it go out into pasture, or has it foundered in the past and needs a dry corral?
  • Be sure to list your veterinarian’s information and also any medications your animal takes.  With horses, it is important to note the hoof care routine, de-worming and vaccination schedules.  The horse’s farrier (one who shoes and trims horses’ hooves) can be helpful in adding information, so list their name and number.
  • Most important, describe how, where and by whom you want your animal to be provided-for if you should pass before they do.  It is imperative to talk to your family and/or friends and make SURE they are aware of your wishes.  Think about and research who might be approached to take the animal(s). Then, talk with that person so that it is not a big surprise to them if the time comes.  Make sure this is someone you can entirely trust to follow your wishes.  If they are at all unsure, don’t leave the matter unsettled!  Horses are expensive to care for, even if you have left some money in your estate to care for them.  And horses can live well into their thirties, so the ages of the horse and caregiver are of concern, too.
  • As with any important papers, all of this information should be included and stored with your important personal papers such as your will.  Your lawyer, if you have one, should be informed of your wishes in order to settle your estate.  With horses, it is very helpful to designate funds for their care in the disbursement of your estate, naming the person or organization that will take possession and providing contact information.  Horses are very expensive to feed and maintain, and for this reason, horses are often “discarded” by those who cannot or will not care for them and end up at the livestock auction where they will most likely go to slaughter in Mexico or Canada.  This is not the fate you want for your horse.
  • Go back and review and update the information from time to time.

If you love your animals, as we all do, you will take the time to plan for their care.  They are totally dependent on you, and in return, give unconditional love.  Planning is key!

Peg Brownlee