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Pet Care-Veterinarians, Insurance and Estate Plans

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Veterinarians are often sued for malpractice. But are they always liable? Every state's Board of Veterinary Medicine sets forth standards that govern the practice of veterinary medicine. If a veterinarian fails to carry out her practice in accordance with those standards, then she may be subject to liability.

Pet owners do not always consider purchasing health insurance for their pets, but doing so can save a lot of money if a pet ever becomes ill. Furthermore, some pet owners do not consider what will happen to their pets if they die or become unable to care for them.

A thoroughly prepared estate plan will include a provision regarding the care of your pet after your death.

Are veterinarians held to a standard of care?

Yes. A veterinarian must use such skill, diligence and care while treating your pet as may ordinarily be expected from a skilled veterinarian doing the same type of work. If the veterinarian fails to exercise such care, she will be liable for any damages to your pet. But be careful before alleging malpractice-the mere fact that your animal is injured or dies after treatment does not necessarily mean that the veterinarian committed malpractice. Be sure to consider all the facts.

TIP: When selecting a veterinarian, it is a good idea to contact your state's Board of Veterinary Medicine or Veterinary Medical Association to ensure that a particular veterinarian is licensed and that she has not been suspended or placed on probation. If you want to report a case of veterinary malpractice, file a report with your state's veterinary board. A complete list of each state's Veterinary Medical Association can be found at www.avma.org/statevma.

What are the benefits of health insurance for my pet?

Pet health insurance can help you cover the cost of any surgeries, treatments and procedures for your pet. Insurance is available for most types of pets, and coverage varies depending on the plan that you select. Obtaining coverage will save you a lot of money if your pet ever needs ongoing treatment for a particular illness.

Should my pet sitter have insurance?

Yes. Your pet sitter should be insured in the event that you or someone else sustains bodily injury, personal injury or property damage due to the negligence of your pet sitter or its employees or agents. Since your pet sitter will have access to your home, you also should make sure that your pet sitter is bonded, which will protect you from the possibility of theft. If you can prove a crime, the bonding company will pay you the amount of your claim and then seek restitution from the guilty party.

What will happen to my pet if I pass away?

Any provision in your will or trust that directs that your pet be left with a particular person on your death will control your pet's destiny. However, if you did not provide for your pet's care, then it will be given to your intestate heirs (e.g., spouse, children, parents, etc.).

TIP: If you die without a will, your property is given to your intestate heirs in the order given in your state's intestacy statute. The intestacy statute in your state might provide that your spouse is to receive all of your property when you die. If you want your pet to be taken care of by your spouse, then you really do not need to do anything. But if you would rather have your pet cared for by your sister instead of your spouse, then you need to put it in your will.

Can I leave money to my pet in my will or trust?

No, because your pet is clearly unable to enforce the will's or trust's provisions. However, you can still provide for your pet's care by leaving a sum of money to another person with the requirement that it be used for your pet's care. This is generally accomplished by a pet trust, which includes the following types:

Traditional Trust The pet and caretaking funds become the trust property, the caretaker is the beneficiary, and the person who watches over the caretaker is the trustee. This type of trust is the least restrictive.

Honorary Trust The caretaker who receives the caretaking funds is the trustee and is to carry out the trust's terms on his honor, which means there is no one to enforce it. If he decides to not use the funds for the pet, he must give the funds to your beneficiaries.

Statutory Pet Trust With this type of trust, any third party can compel the caretaker to use the funds for the care of your pet.

Is there such a thing as "power of attorney for pet care"?

Yes. A power of attorney is a legal document that authorizes a specified person to act on behalf of another in the event of illness or incapacity. With respect to pets, the power of attorney can give a person authority to make decisions regarding a person's pet and can give specific instructions regarding the pet's care. The authority of the person named in the document can be very broad or very specific. For example, the power of attorney can authorize her to "provide all necessary care for my pet," or it can state specific instructions with respect to diet, grooming, exercise, etc. Here is a sample form:

Medical Power of Attorney in Owner's Absence

I, the undersigned owner of my pet named ______________________________, certify that I am more than 18 years of age and hereby appoint __________________________ as my agent to make any and all health care decisions for my pet, except to the extent I state otherwise in this document. My agent shall follow my wishes, as specified in this document or by other means. If my agent cannot determine the choice I would want for my pet, then my agent's decision shall be based on what she believes to be in my pet's best interest. This medical power of attorney is in effect from ______________ through ______________.

The following sets forth limitations on the decision-making authority of my agent (initial one):

_____ I agree to pay for all authorized services, as long as the fees for my pet's medical care do not exceed $_______________.

_____ No limitations shall be imposed on my agent.

Charges for treatment should be billed to the following credit card:

Type of Card______________ Card Number ________________________

Expiration Date_________Name on Credit Card____________________________________________

This power of attorney ends on the following date ___________.

_________________________________________________

Signature of Owner

TIP: It is best to make your instructions as specific as possible. That way, it will be easier to determine whether the person designated to care for your pet is acting within the authority that you give. If your instructions are too broad, it may be difficult to impose liability.