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When individuals seek out an attorney to assist them with their estate planning and long-term care needs, assisted living or hospice care may be part of the conversation. What may be overlooked during the conversation is long-term care planning for one’s pet.  When our pets become terminally ill, the most common means of handling the diagnosis is for pet owners to have their beloved pets humanely euthanized.

While the term animal hospice was popularized in the 1970s, the hospice model of care for pets began to emerge in the 1990s. As previously detailed in a New York Times article “All Dogs May Go To Heaven. These Days, Some Go To Hospice,” (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/01/business/all-dogs-may-go-to-heaven-these-days-some-go-to-hospice.html?_r=2&) and most recently in a Boston Globe article, “Happier ending for dying pets and their owners,” (http://www.bostonglobe.com/lifestyle/2014/09/26/happier-ending-for-dying-pets-and-their-owners/0z2BxauOZz6Jv9vxvWdtAM/story.html) hospice care for terminally ill pets is becoming a growing trend in this country. While the International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care (“IAAHPC”) notes that there are fewer than 10 animal services in the United States that conform to their guidelines, the group has over 300 members, most of whom are veterinarians.  Given the large number of organizations claiming to offer animal hospice services in the past two years, the IAAHPC is working to develop a training program.

For humans, hospice care typically follows a terminal diagnosis for patients in their last few months of life. The focus of hospice is on the reduction of pain and management of medical conditions.  Hospice staff is there to provide the patient with both spiritual and emotional support.  Typically those admitted are in the final six months of life.  The cost of hospice is generally borne by Medicare and to a lesser extent by private insurance plans and Medicaid.

The elements of human hospice, including pain reduction and management, spiritual and emotional support are also present, both for pets and their owners. Pets who enter animal hospice, unlike human hospice, have a terminal diagnosis that will result in death within a period of days to weeks.  While the time pets spend in hospice may not seem very long, this short stint can result in bills that average $2,000 for the pet owner.  Absent a pet insurance policy that covers hospice care for the pet, animal hospice would all be out-of-pocket expenses for the pet owner.  The cost of euthanasia can vary but could end up being less than 10% of the cost of animal hospice depending on where the pet owner lives and the facility.  For those who did not plan for unexpected health care costs for their pet, this can leave them with a grueling decision.

For the pet owner who is concerned about the continuing and long-term care of their pet, it is crucial that the proper provisions be included with their estate planning documents. Protecting one’s beloved pet can be accomplished to a certain extent through a power of attorney, whereby pet owners, in the event of their incapacity, can appoint and authorize an agent to take all necessary steps to care for their pet, including but not limited to expending funds for the pet’s care.  It also can be accomplished to a certain extent through a bequest in a will, although if the pet owner dies, there is always the risk that the person to whom the pet is gifted will not follow through on the pet owner’s final wishes.

According to the ASPCA, 37% of U.S. households have a dog or cat (some 144-176 million dogs & cats combined). As our pets become thought of less as pets and more as members of the family, it is vital that we remember that they, just like us, need some well thought out, long-term care planning.  If a pet owner truly wants to protect the health and well-being of their pet and ensure that ample funds are available for the future care of their pet, the most efficient means is through a pet trust.  Most states, including Michigan, have specifically enacted legislation that authorizes the creation of a trust to provide for the care of an animal alive during the pet owner’s lifetime.  In order to be valid and function as intended, it is important that the pet owner seek qualified legal counsel as there are specific issues such as pet identification and alternative beneficiaries that need to be considered and addressed.

Abigail Murray and Michael Rouvina are Michigan attorneys who focus their law practice on Animal Law, as well as Business Law, Family Law, Probate/Estate Planning, and Alternative Dispute Resolution at the law firm of Murray & Rouvina, PLC in Kalamazoo, MI. You can find more information at www.zoocitylawyers.com.