Animal shelters and rescue sites often see beloved pets suddenly homeless because of the death of their owners.

It’s a fate Carol and Dave Santora do not want to see happen to their 10-year-old pooches Biscuit and Dixie, so they have taken steps to make sure the golden retriever and coonhound are taken care of, should they outlive their owners.

“It’s 100 percent peace of mind,” Carol Santora, an artist and retired nurse in Lyman, said. “We were very concerned that there would be nobody to take care of our animals if something happens to us.”

So the Santoras met with attorney Smilie Rogers of Brennan & Rogers, experts in elder law, life care planning, estate planning and probate, to hammer out a legal course of action for the two dogs and their two horses.

“We spoil our dogs, and we wanted to make sure somebody else will after we are gone,” Carol Santora said. “So if the new owners want to buy them new treats or a new bed they will have the means to do that.”

With Rogers’ help the couple prepared an estate plan that included the pets.

“We set up our will so the dogs will go to the Animal Welfare Society,” Carol Santora said. “We set it up so that money is there for their care at the shelter and so that a person coming in to adopt them will also have some money for their care.”

Those funds, $10,000 per dog, are there for a new owner to buy food, provide medical care or whatever the dogs need.

“Someone may not have the money, but would be a great home and really want these dogs,” she said. “All they would have to do is bring in receipts to the shelter to get reimbursed for the dogs’ care.”

Rogers’ recommends anyone considering such a plan carefully research perspective shelters.

For their part, Carol Santora said, they are confident the Animal Welfare Society will do their utmost to screen any prospective new owners to assure their pets get the best possible care. The couple has a similar arrangement for their horses, Caron Santora said.

According to Rogers, Maine Title 18-B, Chapter 408 specifically addresses trust care for animals and allows Maine residents to set up legally binding estate plans, wills or trusts for their pets.

Maine residents, Rogers said, can appoint a caregiver and backup caregivers for their pets, appoint a trustee to make sure those caregivers are acting responsibly, appoint someone to manage funds earmarked for the pets and may assign a life insurance policy to provide for a pet.

Rogers, himself an animal lover, said it is important for people to take their animals into consideration when it comes to estate planning.

“The law provides [pet owners] with the legal means to ensure that your pets can be financially provided for after you die,” he said. “It’s up to [the owners] to undertake some form of action.”

Not everyone with a pet needs to consider them in estate planning, Rogers said. But he does recommend it for the elderly, single individuals and owners of animals that live a long time,

That way, he said, the owners can have the same peace of mind as the Santoras.

“I’ve seen firsthand how connected elderly owners become to their pets,” Dr. Deirdre Frey, owner of Vet at Your Door in Freeport, said. “They are really members of their family who provide a lot of comfort and companionship. It can become a source of great stress for these pet owners to think about what will happen to a beloved pet in the event of their death.”

Frey has seen firsthand what happens to pets when there are no pre-arranged plans for their care.

“A family member will often step forward to take in the animal [or] find them another home,” she said. “If they can’t find another home or if no family member or friend steps forward, the animal is usually surrendered to a nearby shelter.”

Frey said Maine’s shelters have pretty good track records of caring for and finding homes for pets surrendered in these situations, but it still leaves a lot to chance.

“Planning ahead for the care of your animal in the event of your passing definitely relieves stress,” she said. “It creates peace of mind knowing that your furry family members will be cared for in the best way possible.”

Owners can also research potential shelters and include language in their wills in which shelter they want their pets placed if it comes to it and stipulate a donation to that shelter.

Which is exactly what the Santoras did.

“We talked to the Animal Welfare Society and asked them if they would take our dogs and make sure they get placed in the right home,” Carol Santora said. “We have also included letters describing Biscuit’s and Dixie’s likes, dislikes and quirks so the exact right owners can be found and know what they are getting.”

Working with an attorney on all this provided an extra layer of comfort, she said.

“I don’t have to worry about anything because Smilie will take care of it. I know he’s going to be there if I’m not,” Carol Santora said. “He’s going to make sure everything is carried out, and I can just concentrate on enjoying my animals now.”

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.