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Carrie Fisher, the writer and actress remembered by millions of fans as Princess Leia in the “Star Wars” films, passed away in late 2016. A number of stories published after Fisher’s death mentioned her French bulldog, Gary, a service animal who helped her cope with bipolar disorder. To the relief of many fans, Fisher’s daughter took custody of Gary.

Creating a Pet Trust

Unfortunately, many pets are simply abandoned or forgotten after their owners die. Some people just assume a family member will assume responsibility for a pet, but that is often not the case. This is why it is important to include your pet in your estate planning.

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Dealing with real estate is often the most complicated part of estate planning, particularly if you want to provide for multiple family members. Unlike cash or stocks, it can be logistically difficult to divide a house or a rental property among multiple children. In many cases it makes sense to direct the executor of your estate (or the trustee of your trust) to sell the property upon your death and divide the cash proceeds among your designated beneficiaries.

Leaving it Up to Your Trustee

Then again, there are cases in which you might want to afford one member of your family the chance to keep the property. For example, your will might give one person the right to purchase your house upon your death. Such provisions must be carefully drafted by a qualified attorney to avoid any misunderstanding or confusion.

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Charitable giving is a common feature of many estate plans. In many cases this takes the form of a simple gift in a person’s last will and testament, but charitable giving can also involve complex trust arrangements designed to benefit both the charity and the donor or their family.

Trustee, Charities Spar Over Terms of 1967 Trust

Of course, the more complicated the gift, the more chances there are for a dispute to arise. For example, upon the death of a California man in 1967, his will established a trust for the benefit of his grandson. A corporate trustee was named to oversee the trust with instructions to pay the grandson $100 per month for the rest of his life. The trustee was also permitted to make additional payments to the grandson if he was “without sufficient funds to defray expenses incurred by illness, accident, or other dire need.” After the grandson’s death, the trustee is supposed to divide the remaining trust assets between a number of specified charities.

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The legal requirements for making a valid will in California are straightforward. A will should be in writing and signed by the testator (the person making the will) in the presence of at least two witnesses. Ideally the will is typewritten and signed on the last page. Many estate planning lawyers will also have their clients and the witnesses initial each page of the will, just to make sure there is no doubt as to the authenticity of the entire document.

Alaska Follows California’s Lead on Signature of Handwritten Wills

Most modern wills are typewritten, usually by the office of an experienced estate planning attorney who specializes in preparing such documents. Still, some people decide to write their own wills. Such documents often do not conform with the witnessing requirements of California law. Does that mean these wills are invalid?

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In a typical probate administration, the personal representative named in the deceased person’s will must pay off any valid debts presented to the estate. What if the decedent was already in bankruptcy at the time of his or her death? What happens to the bankruptcy case?

Bankruptcy and probate are actually similar legal procedures. Both require a third party to take possession of a person’s assets. In bankruptcy that person is a court-appointed trustee, while in probate it is the personal representative. A bankruptcy trustee does not take all of a debtor’s assets, however, only those that are not specifically exempt from bankruptcy or creditor judgments. Those assets remain with the debtor and pass to his probate estate–and thus the personal representative–upon death.

Chapter 7 vs. Chapter 13

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If you have a child or other relative who is irresponsible with money or is the subject of a number of creditor judgments, you might consider including a spendthrift clause as part of your estate planning. A spendthrift clause, also known as a spendthrift trust, allows you to leave money to a beneficiary with certain restrictions. Technically, you leave the money to a trustee, who can make payments to the beneficiary per your instructions.

Since the principal of the spendthrift trust remains with the trustee, in most cases the beneficiary’s creditors cannot go after these funds. For example, a creditor could not attach a lien against the trust’s assets. But there are exceptions to this rule, as illustrated by a recent California appeals court decision.

Trustees Ordered to Pay Brother’s Wife

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If you have a family member who is unable to care for him or herself, it may be necessary to seek a conservatorship for that person. A conservator is someone appointed by a probate court to manage the personal or financial affairs of another person (the conservatee). In California there are several different types of conservatorships. For example, a conservator of the estate exercises control over the conservatee’s assets and finances, while a conservator of the person makes decisions regarding the conervatee’s health care, living arrangements, and other basic needs.

Court Appoints Conservator Due to Spouse’s Irresponsibility

While California conservatorships are often associated with elderly relatives with dementia or physical disabilities, in truth a conservatee can be someone of any age and condition. For example, in a recent California case, a probate court created a conservatorship for a woman in her early 30s due, among other things, her ongoing substance abuse problems. Although the woman is married, the court named her aunt as conservator.

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In a revocable living trust, the person making the trust (the grantor) usually decides how the trust’s assets should be distributed after he or she dies. However, there may be circumstances where the grantor wants to give that power to someone else, usually one of the trust’s beneficiaries. This is known as a “power of appointment.”

Court Rules Son Improperly Used Father’s Power of Appointment

If the grantor places no restrictions on a power of appointment, it is considered a “general” power. This means the beneficiary can name anyone–including themselves or their creditors–as recipients of the trust property. A special power of appointment, in contrast, restricts the beneficiary’s discretion.

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The federal estate tax has long been a source of political controversy. The tax applies to the transfer of assets upon a person’s death, but there are a number of exemptions that effectively exclude all but a handful of estates from paying. No estate with a gross value of $5.45 million ($5.49 million as of January 1, 2017) is liable for the tax. Additionally, one spouse can leave an unlimited amount of property to the surviving spouse without owing any tax. While some states still impose their own estate tax, California does not.

Trump Expected to Undo Obama Rules Changes

In August, the U.S. Treasury Department proposed new regulations that it claimed would close “loopholes” in the estate tax. According to the White House, these regulations would make it more difficult for estates to restrict the use of certain assets in order to “discount” their value for tax purposes. Many business owners, in California and elsewhere, have spoken out against the proposed rules, arguing that they will raise their projected estate tax liability and force them to sell their businesses instead of leaving them to their children.

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There are a number of small questions you might have about to estate planning. For instance, what happens to your credit cards after you die? Does your estate have to pay the bill? Or can the credit card issuer go after your wife or children to collect the unpaid balance?

Credit Card Issuers Must Prove Debt

Death does not automatically terminate a credit card agreement. If the account was solely in the deceased person’s name, the credit card issuer may file a claim for the unpaid balance with the estate. If the account was jointly held with a spouse or another individual, that person may still be liable for the debt. Otherwise, a credit card company cannot pursue relatives for the debt.

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