They share our lives, our homes and often even our beds. So it’s little surprise that many people’s wills and estate plans now include provisions for their pets.

You might think only older folks need to plan for their pet’s future, or people with especially long-lived animals such as parrots or turtles, some varieties of which can hang around for 100 years or more. But any of us with pets we love might want to consider taking some basic legal precautions, just in case.

There are several ways to go about it. They vary in cost and the level of control you’ll have over what happens to your pet. Here’s a quick guide, along with some other useful tips for protecting your pet in the event something unexpected happens to you.

Related: 10 Ways to Care for Your Pet on a Budget

Legal options

Traditional pet trusts. The most reliable way to provide for a pet is through a traditional pet trust, says Gerry W. Beyer, a leading authority on the subject and a professor at the Texas Tech University School of Law. It’s also the most expensive option. With a traditional trust, you name a caregiver to look after the pet and a trustee to monitor the caregiver and control the money you’ve left for the pet’s care.

Traditional pet trusts are recognized in all 50 states, Beyer says, and they allow you to be very specific in describing the lifestyle you want for your pet, post-you. For example, you can issue instructions for the animal’s foodgrooming, medical care and even toys. If you wish, you could go as far as the late singer Dusty Springfield, who reportedly arranged for her cat, Nicholas, to be fed imported baby food and put to bed at night with her greatest hits playing in the background.

Related: 8 Common Cat-Feeding Mistakes to Avoid

A traditional pet trust might cost you several thousand dollars, although Beyer says if your lawyer has drafted lots of them and he’s preparing a will and other estate-planning documents for you, the pet trust might add only a couple hundred dollars to the bill. Fortunately, more and more lawyers now have some experience in this area.

cat asleep in cat bed

Statutory pet trusts. A step down in cost and complexity is a trust established by your will in accordance with the statutes of your particular state. Like a traditional pet trust, it allows you to name a caregiver and leave money in trust for your pet. But it doesn’t provide the same degree of control as a traditional pet trust. So if you want to specify your cat’s bedtime playlist like Dusty Springfield, you might have to spring for a traditional trust. At last count, statutory trusts were recognized in 48 states.

Your will. Most basic of all, you could simply leave your pet to someone in your will and, if you wish, some money to help pay for the cost of care. That’s the least expensive option, Beyer says, but also the one that gives you the least control over what becomes of your pet. “There are no guarantees,” he says. “But it’s way better than nothing.”

If you don’t already have a will, you might want one anyhow, especially if you have other dependents (the kind without fur, feathers or scales). “I have talked with many lawyers who’ve told me that it was their clients’ concerns about pets that finally brought them to the lawyer’s office,” Beyer says.

puppy on sofa

cat asleep in cat bed (Photo: JeepFoto/Shutterstock)

Other smart steps

Short of seeing a lawyer, Beyer notes, there are some other things you can do to help protect your pets.

Make a wallet card. A card in your wallet with your pets’ names and emergency contact information could be a lifesaver (for them, at least) if you’re ever incapacitated or worse.

Draft a pet info document. Similar to the wallet card but with room for more details, the document should list emergency contact information, care instructions, your pet’s key medical history and anything else you consider relevant. Beyer suggests keeping a copy in a place where it’s likely to be seen, such as near your pet’s food, and another copy with your will or other estate planning documents.

Hang a door or window sign. List the kinds of animals inside your home and the number of each. Date it so people won’t think it was left behind by a previous resident. A sign will tell potential rescuers what animals to look for (so they don’t overlook the cat hiding in terror under the bed) and give them a heads up about the kinds of creatures who may come charging to greet them. You can find products for this purpose at many pet stores or simply make your own.

Professor Beyer has more information about pet trusts and related matters on his website.

Get more pet care tips in SafeBee's pet owner's guide. 

puppy on sofa (Photo: Anna Hoychuk/Shutterstock)

Greg Daugherty is a longtime personal-finance writer and a former senior editor of Money magazine.