Pet Adoption Agreements

Adoption Agreements & Other Documents for Nonprofits who Work with Animals

A child pets horses at a nonprofit animal rescue

When animal organizations have strong documents and policies, they not only protect themselves and their staff and volunteers, they protect the animals they serve. Whether you’re a wildlife reserve, farm animal sanctuary, breed association or pet rescue, we put together this guide to highlight common documents and policies for animal organizations to help you ensure your bases are covered legally. But by no means is this list exhaustive. If you’d like a nonprofit attorney’s help with developing the right policies and documents for your organization, let us know.

Remember, having strong legal documents and policies are excellent ways to avoid liability and board conflict. 

Articles of Incorporation 

For your nonprofit to be recognized as a legal entity by your state, you’ll need to file articles of incorporation. This legal document includes information about the nonprofit’s name, address, statement of purpose, and its initial board of directors. This is often the first step in establishing a new animal organization—anyone can take in a stray cat or nurse an injured bird back to health, but this step shows that you legally exist for these purposes.


Like any other nonprofit organization, animal organizations are governed by an official set of rules called bylaws. Bylaws are essential because they determine how decisions are made, conflicts are resolved, and risks are avoided. You’ll want to stay up to date on what your bylaws should include and avoid common mistakes because your bylaws have the final word on legal concerns and governance questions. 

For example, your shelter or rescue’s bylaws ought to contain the answers to the following questions:

  • How will the board of directors be structured?
  • What will happen when the organization needs to dissolve in the future?
  • What if the organization’s bylaws need to be amended?

… In addition to several other important things to address. 

Some animal-focused nonprofits, especially clubs associated with a certain breed, have members. Many people think a “member” is a person who is involved with the organization in some capacity, whether they’re a volunteer, a donor, or a staff member like an in-house veterinarian. But the term “member” has a legal definition in this case. A member, in the legal sense, is a person who has some sort of voting rights that are built into the corporate documents. 

If your organization is just starting out, you’ll want to consider pros and cons of having members, but keep in mind that most animal organizations do not have legal members. 

Volunteer Policies and Agreements

It’s no secret that volunteers are the lifeblood of many animal organizations, whether they’re keeping animals fed and groomed, cleaning out stalls or cages, or making sure properties are maintained. While not all animal organizations require their volunteers to follow specific policies, it’s extremely beneficial to have written guidelines for how volunteers are expected to behave, how projects ought to be completed, or how liability is handled. 

A volunteer policy communicates your organization’s rules surrounding a particular volunteer position. For example, many animal organizations have implemented safety policies for volunteers who assist with the animals directly. This policy might outline safety or care measures regarding:

  • Who can or cannot interact with the animals directly (for example, whether or not your shelter will have a volunteer age limit or minimum, or if volunteers who offer to foster animals do so without a home check or an interview)
  • How to handle an animal that is exhibiting signs of injury, distress, illness, or other factors causing aggressive behavior
  • When animals are to be kept in enclosures and when they are allowed to roam free, including how they are to be supervised and how often 

Volunteer agreements, on the other hand, are the documents that volunteers sign to acknowledge and agree to these policies. Or, depending on the project, it may be a release of liability or a commitment to a certain task. Volunteer agreements ensure there is a clear understanding between the organization and the volunteer about both parties’ rights and responsibilities. Generally, volunteer policies communicate the volunteers’ rules, while volunteer agreements communicate the volunteers’ roles. 

We’ve helped nonprofits of all kinds draft volunteer agreements, so reach out to us for assistance if you’re seeking a nonprofit attorney to draft policy or agreement language for your shelter, rescue, foster service, breed association or other animal organization.

Adoption Agreements

If you are an organization that allows the public to adopt animals, we highly recommend high-quality adoption agreements—even if you don’t charge adoption fees. In a general sense, adoption agreements are beneficial for several reasons:

  • They provide record of the animal and its background. This way, adopters cannot claim your organization did not brief them on your knowledge of the animal’s behavioral and medical risks, if applicable. 
  • They provide an opportunity for your organization to release liability. Some adoption agreements explicitly release all obligations of care for the animal to the animal’s new family, so they are expected to comply with state animal laws and take all responsibility for the animal’s behavior going forward. For example, if a dog someone adopted from your shelter bites someone later in life, your shelter can’t be held liable for it.
  • When necessary, they can also provide an opportunity for your organization to keep tabs on the animal and to hold owners accountable (for example, there may be a section that grants your organization the right to check in on the animal’s wellbeing at any time). 

I do want to include a word of caution here about that last point. We commonly see animal organizations that deal with abused animals or animals with challenging medical needs include language in adoption agreements that allow the organizations to null the adoption if not upholding a certain standard. 

For example, if a pet rescue finds out that a family has declawed the cat they adopted when their agreement specifically instructs them not to, or if a horse sanctuary learns a horse’s new owner is not maintaining their medical needs and has given the horse away to a petting zoo, the organization adds language giving them a right to take the animal back.

There are some factors to keep in mind here when deciding whether or not to include these clauses in your adoption agreements:

  • Will you be able to keep track of the rules you’ve put in place for adopters? Will you check on adopters via phone, annual form, house check, etc? (Remember that your adoption agreement being in violation is not an excuse to trespass or break someone’s door down). Many nonprofits do not have the administrative capacity to do this effectively.
  • Will you be able to enforce a breach adoption agreement? Contract violations can end up resulting in court cases, and litigation can be incredibly expensive for anyone, especially nonprofits. You can learn more here about the stages of nonprofit lawsuits and what to expect if you’re on the fence about this. There are also some other options for action when it comes to broken adoption agreements, but these can still be costly in terms of finances and time. 
  • Do your animals have special needs? Sometimes, animal organizations spend a significant amount of time and money rescuing neglected, abused, or severely injured animals, and want to ensure they are taken care of properly in the future. You may find this clause worth it if you want your investments into an animal to be worthwhile and ensure their quality of life. However, one easy way to ensure adopters know what they’re getting into without sending the message that animals can just be “returned” is to meet with them before the adoption is finalized. Have a conversation making sure they know what giving that particular animal a “forever home” truly entails.  

Other Types of Policies 

Many animal organizations have policy and procedure handbooks. These policies might cover anything from:

  • Fostering policies that outline the standards a temporary owner must adhere to, such as home cleanliness standards, # of children or other pets in the home, etc. This may vary by animal depending on its past behaviors and needs.
  • Employee handbooks and a code of conduct, which can protect your nonprofit from pricey employment claims and other HR nightmares. While these incredibly important documents are common in both nonprofit and for-profit spaces, you’ll want to take into account some additional risks with working with animals (who are often vulnerable and unpredictable). These documents are also great opportunities to hold employees accountable for how they can treat animals and keep them safe. You can learn more about employee handbooks here. 
  • Financial policies which outline who can handle financial information and how certain processes can be accomplished. This often includes who is allowed to facilitate transactions and have access to bank accounts.
  • Disciplinary policies on disciplining board members, volunteers, or members who have violated other policies or guidelines.
  • Facility use policies and agreements or other policies outlining how the property and the nonprofit’s equipment is to be used (especially for organizations with lots of land to maintain).

If your animal organization has any other unique arrangements or program concerns, it may be helpful to develop a policy. Policies encourage consistency in how programs are implemented and they remove ambiguity when questions arise. They also protect the nonprofit from liability.

Other Documents for Animal Organizations to Know

Here are some final documents animal organizations should be aware of and know how to access.

  • Foster Agreements for animal organizations that do not only provide adoption services. This agreement may cover similar liabilities as the adoption agreement, in addition to language unique to fostering. For example, sections that prevent the caregiver to alter the animal’s appearance, ensure the caregiver is not liable if the animal bites someone during its time away from the organization or its owner, or provide a monetary amount the caregiver is authorized to spend on veterinary care if needed so the owner or organization can cover the cost. 
  • Your IRS determination letter if you’re a 501c3. If your animal organization is recognized as federally tax-exempt, it’s good to have this document on hand, especially if you’ll be submitting for grant funding or donations from companies. Many organizations like the legitimacy of having the official documentation from the IRS.
  • Meeting Minutes so your nonprofit has accurate record of all board meetings, including special meetings with members if your nonprofit has them.
  • Database of Members so that you can stay up to date on who in your organization is a legal, voting member (most applicable to breed associations or clubs). 


We help animal organizations with their legal documents and compliance concerns all the time. Some legal documents, like bylaws, really should be reviewed every few years to make sure the document reflects the current state of how the organization operates and make any necessary amendments. Others, like volunteer agreements, are optional but can be extremely beneficial. Let us know how we can help with either a review or the creation of your animal shelter, rescue, sanctuary’s documents or policies. We’re here to help so you can focus your energy on the magnificent creatures that need our affection or protection.  

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