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Have a dog or cat? Pet care can be part of your estate plan

Statistical data shows that approximately 68 percent of households in the United States own at least one pet. Dog and cat owners have a lot of love to give, and our beloved animal companions are often treated like members of the family.

If you are a pet owner, you might be concerned about what will happen to your pet once you pass away or if you become unable to care for it. Thankfully, California is among 46 states that allow for the creation of pet trusts as part of an estate plan.

First, let's talk about why you might need/want a pet trust as opposed to a less formal arrangement. Pets are considered property, which means that you couldn't bequeath money or property directly to your dog or cat. (And even if you could, how would they spend it)?

Because pets are property, you do have the option of bequeathing your pet to another person along with money for food, veterinary bills and other expenses. However, this is only a good idea if you trust that person to follow your wishes and take care of your pet. The beneficiary is not legally obligated to keep the pet or spend the money in any certain way.

If you set up a pet trust, however, these safeguards will be in place. You would appoint a trustee (preferably a willing one who wants to take on the role), and that person is legally obligated to carry out your wishes regarding the care of your pet. The person you name as trustee can also be your pet's caretaker, but these two roles don't necessarily have to be fulfilled by the same person.

Depending on how much money you set aside for pet care, there may be money left over when your pet passes away. Therefore, it is a good idea to specify to whom any leftover money will go. This could be a person or a charity, for instance.

Hopefully you can rest a little easier knowing that your pet will be cared for when you are gone. If you have questions about pet trusts or any other estate planning needs, please contact an experienced attorney.

Source: The Wall Street Journal, "More Americans Are Writing Their Pets Into Their Wills," Anne Tergesen, Jan. 12, 2014

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