- The Washington Times - Monday, October 2, 2006


Fay Francisco has shared a home with Poppy for 17 years, and she hadn’t given her beloved cat much thought during estate planning with her attorney.

But Miss Francisco, who is in her 70s, now has a “pet trust” intended to make provisions for pets once their caretakers are gone.

On July 1, Virginia joined 37 other states that have pet trust statutes.

People have long left money and even homes to pets in their wills, but because pets were considered property, their status as beneficiaries rarely stood up to a challenge in court.

“Anyone who contested a provision would win,” said Steve Ann Chambers, president of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, a national animal protection group. “The human would get the money, and the animal would go to the shelter.”

A pet trust allows a benefactor to name a caretaker for a pet and a trustee who ensures that the money is being spent appropriately.

“I think it says people are beginning to understand the place animals have in their lives, and legislators are recognizing they are more than personal property,” said Sharon Adams, executive director of the Virginia Beach Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. “They aren’t stereos or cars — they’re members of the family.”

Miss Adams estimated, however, that at least 10 percent of the 5,000 animals dropped off at the organization’s shelter each year arrive in the wake of an owner’s demise.

The animals often have lived with the owners all of their lives and have a tough time adjusting. They usually are older and sometimes have health problems that make them harder to adopt.

A key feature of the new Virginia law lets one person be appointed to care for the pet and another put in charge of assuring that the pet’s money is used appropriately. If no one is appointed as enforcer, the court can do so.

In addition, anyone interested in the welfare of the pets can ask the court to appoint someone to enforce the trust. When the pet dies, the money transfers to whomever the owner specifies.

Estate lawyer Montgomery Knight Jr. said the law should help keep cases out of court. He represented a client in Richmond several years ago who left $2.5 million to his horse. The owner didn’t have children, but he did have distant relatives.

“He loved them, too, but not as much as the horse,” Mr. Knight said.

Family members took the case to court, and a judge modified the horse’s inheritance to $150,000, Mr. Knight said.

He said that 10 percent to 15 percent of his clients have made some provision for their pets in wills. One left $35,000 for the care of a goose.

Deborah Dalla Villa said she and her husband, Emil, provided in their will years ago for their two Siamese cats, Bambu and Venus.

Mrs. Dalla Villa, who volunteers in a Siamese cat rescue group, said that the breed is particularly sensitive to change and that she wanted to make sure the cats didn’t suffer too much.

“They’re dear to me — there’s no doubt about it,” said Mrs. Dalla Villa, who lives in Virginia Beach, adding that Siamese cats “don’t do well in shelters.”

She said that two relatives have agreed to care for the cats should she and her husband die first.

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