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Camp Lecture looks at pet inheritance

Lee-Ford Tritt and Patrick Duffey

Professor Adrienne Davis addresses the crowd Wednesday, Nov. 3. (Photo by Joey Springer)

By Roberta O. Roberts
Student Writer

Man's best friend can also be man's best beneficiary when it comes to pet inheritance laws.

Trusts, pets and the law were discussed at a talk on pet inheritance sponsored by the Camp Center for Estate Planning at noon on Wednesday, Nov. 3, in the Chesterfield Smith Ceremonial Classroom. Professor Adrienne Davis, the William M. Van Cleve Professor of Law at Washington University Law School, was the guest speaker. About 100 students attended the hour-long event.

Davis started the presentation by giving a brief background on the importance of pets in America and why they are included in inheritance laws.

According to Davis, 63 percent of American households have pets, and American children are more likely to grow up with a pet than with both parents. Twenty percent of Americans ended a romantic relationship because of a dispute over their pets and 30 percent of Americans have stayed home from work to take care of a sick pet. Davis said $41 billion was spent on pets last year, with pets receiving an average of $95 worth of gifts during the holiday season, which is "more than what some of us probably spend on a gift for our significant other."

As these statistics show, Americans have a strong connection with their pets, whether they are cats, dogs, horses or hares. Pet owners sleep with their pets, exercise with their pets and consider their pets as members of the family. Davis showed news articles of studies released that concluded that many parents prefer pets to children.

"It's interesting given the shifting attitudes of [who constitutes] family members," said Joe Joyce, a 3L attendee of the event.

Pets are not only considered members of the family, but to some they are considered a ray of light in a dark abyss. According to Davis, elderly people have given testimonies saying their pet was their only reason for living, and that if it wasn't for their pet, they might have given up.

Davis said pets are so important to Americans that 12 to 27 percent of people include pet provisions in their wills. Three to four million pets go into animal shelters a year and a large number of pets are in shelters because their owners passed away. Pet owners have left millions of dollars in trusts and estates to their pets to ensure that they are taken care of even after their owners pass away.

The U.K. has recognized pet gifts since 1750. The first case about pet gifts in America came up in 1923. After a checkered 70 years of sporadic and unpredictable enforcement, Davis said American law entered a "decade of revolution" in 1990 with Uniform Probate Code 2-907 and is continuing to update its pet gift laws. In addition to 2-907, Davis discussed the Charitable Remainder Pet Trust Act, which was introduced into Congress in 2007, and the Uniform Trust Code 2000, which permits "grandkid" pets, meaning that leftover money can also go to the recipient pet's offspring.

Davis mentioned that Betty White's dog will receive her estate when she passes and Oprah Winfrey's dogs, Sunny and Lauren Winfrey, should be well-off as well.

Laws regarding pets and their inheritance value are constantly being updated or created and Davis, who has been teaching trusts and estate planning for 10 years, said she finds things to get more interesting every year.

"People are very schizo[phrenic] with pets," Davis said. "I noticed that with the Mike Vick and Leona Helmsley cases."

According to Davis, when it came to pets in the Mike Vick case, people thought pets had legal rights against abuse. But in the case of Leona Helmsley, many thought a $12 million trust fund for her dog while two of her grandchildren received nothing was excessive. Helmsley also requested that her dog's remains be buried next to her in her grave in a mausoleum.

But besides being interesting, Davis said she hopes students realize that their client may want to leave a gift to their pet and that they should take their client's request seriously. She also said that as a result of the presentation, students may end up helping the reform effort.

At the end of the presentation, Davis took questions from the audience. One student said they thought their question was absurd. To that remark, Davis replied, "In pet trusts, there are no stupid questions."

Davis is also the Director of the Black Sexual Economies Project for the Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Work and Social Capital at the Washington University Law School and Founder and Coordinator of the Law & Culture Initiative. Her articles range from trusts and estates, family law, black women and labor, slavery, sexuality, and religion.

The Camp Center for Estate Planning is directed by Assistant Professor Lee-Ford Tritt. The center integrates teaching, training, research, scholarship and public service, and is dedicated to advancing estate planning, charitable giving, and elder law knowledge, professionalism, skills and policy by educating and training both students and lawyers.