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Nothing about the passing of a loved one is easy. But what is already a painful and stress-filled situation might be made more stressful if you’ve inherited your loved one’s dog, especially if you weren’t prepared for the challenge of welcoming a new pet into your life. Here’s what you need to know if you’re facing the prospect of inheriting someone else’s dog.

Is there a Pet Trust?

Pets can’t legally inherit money or property, so dog owners who want to make sure their pets are properly looked after in the event of the owner’s passing may set up a pet trust. A trust establishes a manager, or a “trustee,” to manage assets included in the trust, and a beneficiary who receives the benefits of the assets. In the case of a pet trust, the asset would likely be money to put toward the continued care and feeding of a pet; the trustee would be the designated caregiver, and the beneficiary would be the pet.

In this type of arrangement, the trustee wouldn’t necessarily be the dog’s legal owner, but would care for the dog as if they were the trustee’s own pet, while the costs of the dog’s care would be paid for by the trust’s assets. This is a good way for pet owners to ensure the continued care of their pets without placing the burden of food and veterinary costs on their human loved ones.

A trust may also place limits on how the assets in the trust can be spent and stipulate what happens to the assets after the dog passes away, as well as what happens to the dog if the trustee can’t serve as the caregiver. In any case, whoever ends up with the dog will need to abide by the terms of the trust, but will likely have any expenses involved in the dog’s care covered by the trust.

Labrador retriever being snuggled sitting on the dock next to a young woman.
AJ_Watt/Getty Images Plus

Who Decides Who Gets the Dog?

In the absence of a pet trust, the original owner may leave a will that designates who should care for the dog. In that case, the person specified will inherit the dog automatically. If the designated caregiver declines to accept the dog, or if no caregiver has been named, then it will be up to the executor of the will to find a suitable home for the dog. If multiple people volunteer, then the executor will have the authority to determine who gets to keep the dog.

Sometimes, however, people pass on without leaving a will, or without remembering to make provisions for their pets. If this is the case, it will be up to the deceased’s family members to hash out who will care for any pets left behind.

If You Keep the Dog

Without a pet trust, any dog that you inherit will be your dog. Along with full ownership, you’ll also be responsible for expenses associated with the dog. These will likely include:

  • Food and treats
  • Beds, toys, and other accessories
  • Grooming supplies and expenses
  • Veterinary and health costs

If you can, it’s a good idea to talk to the dog’s regular vet about any health issues they may be dealing with, special diets or medications the dog is taking before you commit to accepting the dog into your care. And if you know the dog’s breed (or primary breed makeup in the case of mixed-breed dogs), it would also be wise to research the breed so you’ll have an idea of how much time and energy you’ll need to commit each day to play and exercise, as well as the dog’s social needs and how well they tolerate being left alone for extended lengths of time. If you work outside the home, depending on the dog’s level of tolerance, you might need to consider the services of a doggie daycare or a dog walker.

You may also need to invest in dog training. Depending on how well-trained the dog was by the previous owner, it may simply be a matter of teaching them how to fit into your household and lifestyle, which you can probably handle yourself with the guidance of books or online videos. But for serious behavioral issues or bad habits they learned in their old life, you may need to hire a professional dog trainer or behaviorist to help you break those bad habits and help your dog relearn better patterns of behavior.

sad pure-bred dog, puppy Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, lie, close up muzzle
©tankist276 -

How to Help a Grieving Dog

Keep in mind that many dogs experience grief when separated from their owners. This could be the root cause of some behavioral issues, or it could exacerbate issues that already existed. Signs of grief in dogs include depression, lethargy, loss of appetite, and either wandering around as though searching for their owner or waiting by the door for them to come back. The dog could also develop clinginess that could escalate into separation anxiety. Talk to the dog’s vet if you notice any signs of grief that concern you. Appetite loss, in particular, can be dangerous if you’re unable to coax the dog to eat.

If you can, it might help to take some time off work so you can be there to comfort the dog during their first few days in their new home. This would also be a good time to focus on bonding with them and helping them get settled into a new routine. Providing them with a shirt or blanket that still has their previous owner’s scent might also help comfort them. If it’s allowed, taking the dog to the funeral home and allowing them to view and sniff the body of their deceased owner may help to provide closure and prevent them from searching for their owner or waiting for them to return.

Do You Have to Keep the Dog?

Understand that you’re not legally obligated to keep a dog you’ve inherited. Whether you consented ahead of time to be named as the pet’s caregiver or not, both circumstances and feelings can change. You may find you’re not in a position to keep a dog that’s been left to you, or to provide them with the quality of care their deceased owner hoped for. If this is the case, you’ll need to inform the executor of the will, who will then be responsible for placing the dog with a more suitable caregiver. This can be a difficult decision, but it’s best to be honest about your preference or ability and put the dog’s welfare ahead of any guilty feelings you might experience. Any guilt you feel over not abiding by your late loved one’s wishes should be softened by knowing you’re helping to do what’s best for their beloved companion.

Related article: How to Show Your Dog You Love Them
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