• In the eyes of the law, your pet is essentially your property (we know, we know).
  • That means you can use your Last Will & Testament to leave them to someone you trust, an option known as pet guardianship
  • Many shelters and humane societies also offer pet stewardship programs, which would allow them to take custody of your pet in the event of your death and find it a new home.

Ever heard the one about the canine millionaire? Last year, Netflix began streaming Gunther’s Millions, a docuseries chronicling the life and times of the world’s richest German Shepherd. As the story goes, Gunther was the sole heir to his family’s $400 million fortune, and now he lives a life rich with “financial exploits, including offshore accounts, the purchase of Madonna’s former home and elaborate social experiments involving sexy locals in bikinis.”  

As you may have guessed, this telling of events is not entirely truthful (spoiler alert). Nevertheless, the story of Gunther and his millions may leave you wondering: what happens to the pets who aren’t the heirs to multi-million-dollar fortunes? What can we ordinary people do to ensure our pets are taken care of?

This blog post will briefly cover two of the main options available to pet owners as they go through the Aging & End of Life Planning process: pet guardianship and pet stewardship. Our friends over at Epilogue Wills also have a detailed blog post explaining both, which we’ve drawn from here.    

What is Pet Guardianship?

Pet guardians are the people you personally appoint to take care of your fuzzy friends in the event that you pass away before they do. In the eyes of the law, pets are essentially seen as property (even though we all know they’re really so much more than that). That means you can leave them to somebody else in your Last Will &  Testament, the same as you would any other asset. 

Pet guardianship can be a great option for both your pet and the people in your life. By designating a new owner for your furry companion, you’ll be minimizing the number of transitions your pet will have to go through after you’re gone (no bouncing around between relatives’ homes while your family figures out what to do), while also sparing your loved ones the difficult process of deciding who should be responsible for them. 

But make sure to think things through before you decide to leave your pet to somebody. As you’re already well aware, pet ownership can be challenging, and inheriting an animal comes with a set of unique responsibilities that not everyone can manage. 

Choosing a Pet Guardian

It might be your first instinct to just leave your pets to whoever you’re personally closest to. But when choosing a pet guardian, at the end of the day, what’s most important is their ability and willingness to take care of a living creature. Your mom might be the single person you trust most in the world, but she’s also a seventy-something-year-old retiree who loves her peace and quiet. Is she really the best choice to take care of your extremely energetic Cocker Spaniel? 

Also keep in mind that pet ownership is a long-term commitment! Even if mom is up to the challenge right now, will she still be up for it five or ten years down the line? As with every other part of your Last Will & Testament, you need to approach pet guardianship with a future-oriented mindset. It’s also important to periodically revisit your Will to ensure that it’s still aligned with your situation and your wishes.  

What’s the best way to navigate all of these considerations? Through open & honest conversations with your loved ones. If you have somebody in mind as a possible pet guardian, talk to them about how they’d feel if you left your pet to them. 

Here are some additional questions for you to think about when selecting a pet guardian: 

  • How much does it cost to take care of your pet? Can your potential pet guardian afford this? What funds and/or supplies could you leave them to support them? 
  • What are your pet’s physical and environmental needs? (e.g. How much exercise do they need? How much space? Can they co-exist with other animals?) Will your potential pet guardian be able to meet these needs in the long term?
  • Is your potential pet guardian’s lifestyle conducive to pet ownership? (Do they travel a lot for work? Would they be okay with skipping out on the office happy hour to walk the dog?)
  • Does your pet already have an emotional connection to this person, or are they a stranger? 
  • Does your potential pet guardian have (or want to have) children? Is your pet kid-friendly? 

Pet Guardianship: The Bottom Line

Designating a pet guardian in your Will means choosing a person to take ownership of your pet after your death. This is probably the simplest and most efficient way to rehome your pet after you’ve passed away. That said, because pet ownership is a major long-term commitment, you shouldn’t designate a pet guardian without careful consideration, and ideally an honest conversation with the person or people you have in mind. 

Pet Stewardship 

Pet stewardship means entrusting your pet to an organization (usually a humane society or animal shelter) which can then see about finding them a new home (whether a furr-ever home or a foster home). Every stewardship program has its own policies and requirements, but typically, the organization operating the program will take custody of your pet upon your death or serious illness. They will also collect any funds or supplies that you have earmarked for your pet’s care in your Last Will & Testament. 

Pet stewardship is a great choice if you don’t have any relatives or loved ones who are in a position to take care of your pet. It can also give you some peace of mind that your pet will be well cared for after you’re gone: many pet stewardship agreements specify that the organization will not euthanize your pet except in extreme circumstances (e.g. severe illness). 

To pursue this option, you’ll typically need to sign a stewardship agreement with an organization in your area, as well as bequeathing your pet to their stewardship program in your Last Will & Testament. You can also use your Will to set aside some money and supplies to be passed on to the organization and your pet’s new family. 

What Happens If I Do Nothing? 

If you don’t designate a pet guardian or steward in your Will, what will happen to your pet? In most provinces, by default, they’ll be treated the same as the rest of your residuary Estate (i.e. the parts of your Estate that you haven’t specifically bequeathed to anybody). In other words, whoever is tasked with clearing out all the junk in your basement will also be tasked with finding a new home for your pets. Make sure to familiarize yourself with the laws in your area—or better yet, ask your Legacy Coordinator.

Let us take the lead

Don’t let Aging & End of Life Planning just become another item on your to-do list. Book a free call with Viive and let us figure out the rest.

Let's chat

About the Author

Katie MacIntosh is the Content Manager at Viive Planning. She is currently completing a Master of Library and Information Science at the University of Toronto's Faculty of Information. When she’s not writing for Viive about life, death, and everything in between, she’s probably reading, taking a nice long walk, or studying Japanese.

Related Posts

An older couple with a chocolate labrador dog.
November 3, 2023

8 Reasons to Write Up Your Will (Right Now)

Spoiler alert: One of them has to do with keeping your furry friends safe and comfortable after you're gone.

Multi-generational family photo
March 22, 2023

From Laughing Together to Fighting Together

How to deal with grieving & greedy siblings once your parents pass away