The Case For Pet Care in Perpetuity

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Since Linda Hauser was widowed, she says, her three dogs and three cats have become like her family.

So Hauser was horrified when she learned recently that Maryland has no legally binding way for her to ensure that a portion of her estate would be spent on the animals' care if she was to die before them.

In the District and 39 states, including Virginia, residents can establish legal trusts for their pets. Money is set aside to care for the animals in case the owners die or are incapacitated. That's not the case in Maryland, but that could soon change. The House of Delegates is expected to vote as early as today on a bill to allow the creation of trusts for animals.

There apparently is no need to worry that the proposal could inspire imitators of Leona Helmsley, the hotel magnate who left a $12 million trust fund to her white Maltese. One of the legislation's sponsors, Del. A. Wade Kach (R-Baltimore County), said that under the bill, no more could be set aside than was needed to care for an animal. The courts could overrule pet lovers who tried to leave millions to their pets and order that the money be given to other heirs. The state Senate passed a similar bill in 2006, boosting its chances for success in the General Assembly this year should the House approve the measure.

"Hopefully, family members would step in," said Hauser, 61, a Baltimore County resident. "But in my case, my entire family are animal lovers, and they all have their own pets. For them to take in any of my pets would be a burden for them."

Under current Maryland law, residents can name a caretaker for their pets in their wills and ask that a sum of money be set aside for the pets' care. But if the designated caretaker proves unable or unwilling to care for their pets, there is no guarantee that the deceased's wishes will be followed. Under the legislation, a court would enforce the terms of the trust, requiring that the money set aside go only to care for designated animals.

"The states and courts should recognize that there's an important human-animal bond," said Michael Markarian, executive vice president of the Humane Society of the United States, which has pushed for such legislation nationwide and is supporting a federal measure. "People want the peace of mind of knowing that their pets will be cared for."

Markarian said many animals end up in shelters and sometimes are euthanized because their owners die without making provisions for their care.

Hauser said she would set aside enough money to cover food, medical bills and regular grooming for her dogs Dottie, Boo and Max, and her cats Gus, Inky and Buster.

The bill is being sponsored by two professed animal lovers: Kach, who has two cats, Prince Albert, who goes by Bertie, and Crown Princess, who sometimes goes by Alexandra Hanover, and Del. John A. Olszewski Jr. (D-Baltimore County), who owns Indy, a 2-year-old border collie-chow mix.

"You work hard for what you earn," Olszewski said. "You should be able to decide how its spent after your death."

Kach and Olszewski said if they die before their pets, they want to have provided the means to care for them.

"This bill has the support of Republicans and Democrats," Olszewski said. "Dog lovers and cat lovers, too."

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