Saving a Senior Pet: The Story of BootsPublished April 16, 2012
On December 24, 2011, Georgia Lee Dvorak died at the age of 76, survived by no relatives but her 11 year-old senior cat, Boots. In her 20-year-old will, she left instructions that any cats that she owed at the time of her death should be euthanized. However, trust officer Josephine Di Cesare at the Fifth Third Bank, appointed to manage Dvorak’s estate, felt uncomfortable putting Dvorak’s 11-year-old cat to sleep.
In order to save the senior pet's life, Fifth Third had to petition Cook County probate court to set aside the specific provision of Dvorak’s 1988 will on the grounds that euthanizing the cats was against Illinois public policy and that the bank had found a shelter to take Boots.
According to Katherine Goggin, a Fifth Third trust associate who was assigned to make provisions for the geriatric cat, Dvorak’s neighbors, the Buturusises, had been taking care of Boots in Dvorak’s home before and after her death. Unfortunately, the couple was unable to adopt the cat because the husband and wife both had severe allergies. As a result, Goggin spent a considerable amount of time looking for a shelter that could take place.
“I called more than 10 no-kill animal shelters and organizations in the Chicago land area to take Boots. The challenge was quite clear from the very beginning…even with a stipend, Boots was an elderly animal and would not be easy to place. Most organizations wanted young animals because they’re a lot easier to adopt out,” explained Goggin.
Eventually, Goggin called Cats are Purrsons Too, the organization from which she obtained her cat. They agreed to take the senior cat. Although bank representatives had found a place for Boots, they still had to convince the court to grant the petition in their favor so that Boots could live.
Fifth Third’s lawyer, also a cat lover, Jeff Walker of Spain, Spain & Varnet argued in front of probate Judge Susan Coleman that Dvorak was committed to humane treatment to animals. He explained that most of her estimated $1.4 million estate went to animal–related charities. The twelve charities, she mentioned in her will included: Animal Legal Defense Fund; the International Fund for Animal Welfare; People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals; Defenders of Wild Life; Nature Conservancy; Animal Protective Institute; Chicago’s Anti-Cruelty Society; Chicago’s Animal Welfare League; the Humane Society of the United States; and, the World Wildlife Fund.
Additionally, Walker introduced an affidavit from Dvorak’s neighbor, Wayne Burturusis, her neighbor for 10 years. He provided detail regarding the fact that Dvorak had been a caring cat owner for many years. Prior to having Boots, he recalled that Dvorak had two cats. While one cat lived to the age of 19, the other cat named Sarah, died at age 3 due to kidney failure, despite Dvorak spending a large sum of money caring for the cat.
Moreover, after Sarah died, Dvorak became very depressed and spoke of committing suicide. But, after she rescued Boots, eighteen months prior to her death, Dvorak’s mood improved and she stopped talking about killing herself.
Furthermore, he said that to his knowledge Boots had been a stray whose prior owners reportedly threw the cat down stairs and kept her in a locked closet for days without food, water or a litter box. Once she was re-homed with Dvorak, the cat followed Dvorak everywhere and even slept in bed with her. Buturusis also expressed that he believed that Dvorak would have preferred that the cat be euthanized rather be adopted by another abusive owner. But, if there was a suitable home, he felt that Dvorak would have preferred that the bank find Boots a loving and safe home.
Most importantly, to make his point, Walker cited other state court cases since Illinois had never ruled on this issue. For example, in a Pennsylvania case, a dog owner provided instructions to euthanize his two dogs. The court ruled to invalidate the provision based upon hearing of his affinity for his dogs; and, ii) since it was against the policy of the state. Walker also referenced similar cases in New York involving a cat and in Vermont involving a horse.
“My strategy was to show that these state court cases overrode the decedent’s euthanasia will provisions due to public policy. In the cases cited the courts decided that destroying these animals would be an act of gross inhumanity and spared their lives- just as the Illinois court should with Boots. Additionally, proof of strong extrinsic evidence would also help override the will,” says Walker.
On Monday, April 2, Judge Coleman allowed Fifth Third to make more humane arrangements for Boots. She agreed to allow $1,000 from Dvorak’s estate go toward an endowment toward Boots. Fifth Third also agreed to forego fees of $1,000 to bring the cat’s endowment to $2,000.
“Although the court spared Boots’ life, I hope this case will remind pet owners to think about the provisions that pertain to their pets lives and plan accordingly,” notes Walker.