For many, the responsibilities of caring for a pet pale in comparison to the joy of pet ownership. The adage a “dog is a man’s best friend” rings true, particularly for those who live alone.

In 2013, the Amer­ican Heart Association wrote pet ownership decreases the risk from cardiovascular disease. Similarly, in an April 2020 article, Cleveland Clinic determined pets can help calm someone, offer companionship and elevate mood.

Pet ownership also tends to increase exercise, which leads to re­duced risks for heart disease, stroke, cancer and diabetes, and is beneficial for those at risk for Al­zhe­imer’s and dementia.

Owning a pet requires us to care for the needs of another, often forcing us to spend less time and attention dwelling on our own ailments or complaints. This can be a very good thing. However, loved ones also should be mindful of the willingness of many seniors to sacrifice their own needs to meet the needs of a pet.

Family members should pay extra attention to the pet’s needs, as those needs can heavily weigh upon the owner. Particularly for seniors on fixed incomes, family members should assist where possible with ensuring the pet has food and proper veterinary care.

Pet owners also should consider what will happen to the pet upon the owner’s death. Provisions for the pet’s care should be specified within planning documents in two ways.

First, choose a caregiver and a backup caregiver, keeping in mind taking on another person’s pet can be a big responsibility. Talk to the potential caregivers and make sure they are comfortable with being appointed.

Also consider whether caregivers have the ability to take on the additional care. Do they have other pets? Do they have a work schedule that will enable them to care for the pet?

Second, if possible, attach a monetary distribution to the care of the pet. This can be accomplished through a one-time payment up front or through the use of a pet trust.

The benefit of using a one-time payment up front is simplicity. The planning document, such as a will or revocable trust, simply gives a specified amount to the individual who takes on the care of the pet. The potential danger to this option is the caregiver could take the distribution, but give up the care of the pet later, leaving no money for a new caregiver.

The other option is through the use of a simple pet trust. A pet trust is set up within someone’s existing testamentary documents such as a will or trust. It names an individual to handle an amount of money set aside for the care of the pet.

The benefit of using an ongoing pet trust is the money only can be used for the pet, regardless of the pet’s caregiver and any remaining money after the death of the pet is distributed to named beneficiaries. The disadvantage is that even a simple trust does require some paperwork to be done.

Pets are special and for many people, especially those living otherwise in isolation, a pet is a beloved member of the family. If you are considering the benefits of pet ownership for a senior loved one, check out the website, Pets for the Elderly, a nonprofit with great information on pet ownership for seniors or call a local shelter.

Cynthia T. Griffin is an elder law and estate planning attorney at Burnett and Griffin PLLC in Elizabethtown. She can be reached at cynthia@bcglawcenter.com.

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