Pets and Probate: Boots' Story

Boots, an 11-year-old black cat, almost lost her life last week when she was sentenced to death in her owner's will. The feline was property of an elderly woman who died at age 76. This lady left Boots' in her Berwyn home when she moved to Burbank to live at a nursing facility. Her neighbors had taken up the responsibility to feed the kitty. She left a will drafted over 20 years before, which included a statement saying that any cats in her possession at the time of her death should be euthanized by a veterinarian in a "painless, peaceful manner." The trust officers at Fifth Third Bank retaliated against the lady's wishes, thinking it inhumane to kill a perfectly healthy cat. The lady was not survived by any relatives, so there was no one to assume ownership of the animal when her owner passed on.

On Monday, Fifth Third Bank requested that a Cook County probate court set aside the provision about that cat in the will. Instead, the bank located a shelter where they could leave Boots. Ironically, almost all of the decedent's estate was given to animal-related charities, as outlined in her will. She gave almost $1.4 million to 12 charities including the Animal Legal Defense Fund, the International Fund for Animals and Welfare, the Chicago's Anti-Cruelty Society, the Defenders of Wild Life, the Nature Conservancy, the Humane Society if the United States, the World Wildlife Fund, the Animal Protective Institute, and PETA. Boots' herself had been rescued from an abused home by her owner. According to her neighbors, this woman loved Boots, and the cat followed her everywhere she went. Boots even slept in bed with her.

The bank chose a no-kill shelter in Illinois to serve as Boots' new home, where the senior cat will be given attention and a comfortable environment. The shelter which accepted Boots, Cats are Purrsons Too, asked for a $2,000 endowment. In order to satisfy the payment, Fifth Third took $1,000 from Boots' previous owner's estate, rationalizing this with the fact that they would have had to pay for the euthanizing anyway. The other $1,000 will come from Fifth Third. They agreed to forego some of the probate fees that they would normally charge to cover the balance of the endowment. The lawyers involved on the case cited court cases from other states because no Illinois court had ever had to deal with such an issue before.

One of the Fifth Third Bank attorneys decided that it would violate public policy to kill a healthy housecat when the bank had found a suitable alternative. In the past, a similar case occurred in Pennsylvania when a man left a will which asked that any dog that remained with him at the time of death be destroyed. The man left behind two Irish setters at the time of his death, but they were rescued because Pennsylvania declared it was against public policy to put two healthy and friendly dogs to death. Also, lawyers were able to prove that the man had treasured his dogs, and that he most likely did not want to see them perish along with him. A similar case occurred in Vermont, when a woman left behind horses that she wished to perish when she did. Again, the horses were rescued, because it was termed inhumane to kill them without a just cause.

Because of her obvious passion for animals, the court determined that the owner would have wanted Boots to have a longer life. They reasoned that the lady had written her provision with the assumption that there would be no one there to care for her beloved pet, and that the cat would be left homeless and helpless to suffer a painful death, rather than a peaceful euthanizing. The lady's neighbors who had been feeding Boots filed an affidavit saying that the woman would have preferred to find Boots a suitable home rather than euthanize her. He claimed that the cat was in good health, friendly, playful, and spayed, so it caused no harm to others. He could not take the cat himself because of severe allergies. The man surmised that this woman probably made her request because of Boots' abusive past. She would have rather had the pet euthanized than sent to another abusive home.