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Don't forget to include your pets in an estate plan!

If you're getting up there in years, you may be overlooking one important thing in your estate plan: your pets.

A lot of older people have dogs, cats and birds that end up outliving them. If you don't have provisions made for their care in your will, you have no way of making sure that they'll actually be cared for the way that you'd prefer.

Putting a dog or some other pet in a will is the sort of thing that people associate only with the rich -- especially since Leona Helmsley caused a furor when she left millions for the care of her dog when she died. However, estate planning that includes pets is becoming so common that it hardly raises an eyebrow these day.

Here are some things that you need to consider when adding a clause for your pet to your estate plans:

  • The average lifespan of your pets. In the case of a dog, the lifespan is usually dictated by the dog's breed. It isn't unusual for an indoor cat to live 16-17 years (or longer). A pet like a parrot might outlive you by decades.
  • The amount of money it takes to feed your pet the way that you prefer, including treats. If you pet has enjoyed top-tier food, you want that to continue after you are gone.
  • The amount it costs to take your pet to the vet, on average, every year.
  • An additional fund, or "padding," designed to cover things like the pet's burial or cremation, illnesses, special beds, boarding or other important items.

Once you start calculating out the costs of a pet, it's easy to see why owners are adding them to their estate plans.

For example, one pet owner calculated out that her parrot would require around $61,000 to care for properly over its lifetime after her death -- not including extra expenses like boarding. That's a big burden to leave to your heirs, the people you've presumably left in charge of your pets -- unless you also leave them the financial means to handle the costs.

Don't be shy about bringing up the issue with your attorney when you discuss your estate plans -- he or she has doubtless encountered the issue before and won't think twice about helping.

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