For The Tribune-Democrat
Will the courts uphold wills that leave money to animals?
Yes and no. I’m not trying to be evasive, but it has been a sticky problem for the courts.
On the one hand, the courts generally try to uphold our final wishes, if it is possible to do so. On the other hand, gifts to specific animals, rather than to animal groups such as the SPCA, have never been popular with the courts.
Consider the 1948 case created by the will of John Renner of Philadelphia.
Renner, a bachelor, was a retired policeman. In his will, he left some money to a niece and nephew.
His home and garage, together with the contents, he left to his friend, Mary Riesling. All the rest of his money and property he left to Riesling “in trust, however, for the maintenance of my pets ...”
The pets Renner left behind were a dog and a parrot.
The remainder of his estate amounted to $11,900. The niece and nephew objected to Riesling spending the $11,900 on the animals. They argued that the gift to the animals was void and, as his next of kin, they should have the money.
The court ruled that Riesling could, but did not have to, use some or all of the money for the care and eventual burial of the pets. Under the terms of the will, whatever was left went to Riesling anyway.
The will of Florence B. Lyon, of Franklin County, presented a similar problem, except that Lyon, who died in 1973, was worth $1.4 million at the time of her death. Four horses and six dogs survived her. One dog “died or disappeared” before the case was heard. The income from the money set aside for the care of the animals was estimated by the court at $50,000 a year. The court decided, as it had in the Renner case, that the executor could, but did not have to, care for the animals, but since Lyon had a large farm, it gave the executor three choices as to how to accomplish the purpose:
1. Give the animals to the local SPCA with enough money to care for them.
2. Reserve five acres of ground, build a barn and set aside money to keep the animals.
3. Let Princeton University (the final recipient after the animals died) care for them.
If you must let your estate go to the dogs, select the money keeper carefully, because the animals can’t speak for themselves, and the courts generally won’t compel compliance.
Thomas Young, a graduate of Pitt and Harvard Law School, has been a lawyer in Johnstown since 1958. He is a former professor of business law at Pitt-Johnstown. Readers may send questions to Young in care of The Tribune-Democrat. The opinions expressed in this column are general in nature and may not apply to your situation. Consult your attorney for advice on specific legal matters.
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