Dear Penny: Who Gets My Dogs When I Die if I Have No Close Family?

An older woman poses for a portrait with her two dogs.
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Dear Penny,

I am a widow with a home, property and two large dogs. My health is fairly good, but I’m getting older and starting to question what moves I should make to secure my future. I have no will, as most of my relatives have passed away. I do have a few grandkids who live far away.

I do not know where to start on securing my future in case I get ill, owning my home vs. renting (expensive), and whether I should move to another small, SAFE town with medical facilities. If I die, who would get my home, money and so on? My dogs are important, too.

I’m undecided on what to do and where to start, as I’m not getting any younger and I have no spouse to help with any decisions.


Dear C.,

Focus on the most pressing issue: You don’t have an estate plan. That’s something even healthy young adults should have, but it becomes more important as you age.

There’s a saying in estate planning that if you don’t have a will, your state has one for you. In other words, when you don’t document your wishes, your state’s intestacy laws decide who gets what. If your grandchildren are your closest living relatives, they’d probably inherit your property after a drawn-out probate process. Likewise, if you become unable to make decisions on your own behalf, a court would also appoint someone — probably your closest living relative — to make decisions on your behalf.

My two big concerns are: What would happen to your dogs if you died or became unable to care for them? And who would you want to make decisions for you if you become incapacitated?

Before you create your estate plan, do a little homework. Is there anyone you think might be willing to care for your dogs if necessary? If so, ask them if you can leave your pups to them in your will.

It’s important to note that even though pets are cherished family members for many of us, they’re considered property under the law. That means they can’t inherit money.

If you find a willing caregiver, the best option would be to set up a pet trust. You can use this document to name a caretaker and leave instructions for the dogs’ care. The advantage of using a pet trust versus simply leaving your dogs to someone in your will is that you can set aside money to be used specifically for your dogs.

If you can’t find a caregiver, you can look into perpetual pet care programs, like Peace of Mind Dog Rescue or the Perpetual Pet Care Program at the Kansas State University College of Veterinary Medicine. In exchange for a donation, they’ll ensure your pets have lifetime care.

You should also think about whom you’d want to make medical decisions and manage your finances on your behalf if you become incapacitated. You can use a health care proxy to name someone to make health decisions for you, as well as a living will to outline your wishes for your care. You can also use a durable power of attorney document to name someone to handle your financial matters if you can’t. Be sure to ask someone if they’re willing to accept these responsibilities before naming them in a legal document.

Finally, you need to decide whom you want to inherit your non-pet property and money. If you’re not close with your grandchildren, they don’t need to be your beneficiaries. You could choose a friend or a charity you admire to inherit your assets.

Once you’ve made these decisions, it’s time to create a will and other estate planning documents. Ideally, you’ll do so with an attorney. Though plenty of websites let you draw up these documents for $100 or less, these options aren’t exactly airtight. However, they’re better than nothing.

You have a lot of other big decisions you’re weighing, like whether to move to a new town and renting vs. remaining a homeowner. When you try to make too many decisions at once, you often wind up overwhelmed. Sometimes you don’t do anything as a result.

That’s why I’d focus on making a will and determining who will care for your dogs first. Then you can start to weigh the other decisions you’re considering. Try taking baby steps.

For example, you could research a few towns that meet the criteria you’re seeking. Make it a goal to visit at least one within a certain time frame — say, three months — to see if it better suits your needs.

Estate planning is a task people put off for obvious reasons. No one likes to think about dying or becoming seriously ill. But it can also be clarifying to contemplate what you want for the end of your life. Once you’ve made those decisions, you may find the decisions that follow are easier as a result.

Editor’s note: This column was originally published On October 9, 2022. 

Robin Hartill is a certified financial planner and a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder. Send your tricky money questions to [email protected].