Can you request in your will that your companion animal must be killed on your death?

It is a peculiar question to me but some people do request in their will that the executor of their will has their healthy companion animal, usually a cat or dog, euthanized (actually killed) after they’ve died because they might believe that nobody can care for their pet as well as they could.

And that is the reason why San Francisco’s Mary Murphy requested in her will that her dog, Sido, be taken to her veterinarian and destroyed on her passing. She had, incidentally, committed suicide. The will’s executor, Rebecca Wells Smith, said that Murphy was afraid that no one could take care of her dog.

It was an incredibly selfish request but fortunately on her passing Sido was taken to the San Francisco SPCA. And at that time, 1979, its director was Richard Avanzino.

Richard Avanzino, with Sido, in 1979
Richard Avanzino, with Sido, in 1979. Image believed to be in the public domain.
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Nathan Winograd, American’s great advocate for shelter animals, tells me that Richard Avanzino is the founder of the no-kill shelter movement. It seems that Nathan Winograd learned from Avanzino and followed in his footsteps. Nathan Winograd is America’s great advocate for the no-kill movement today.

And so, Avanzino refused to have Sido put down. He colourfully told a local newspaper at the time that: “The law says that a pet can be destroyed like a piece of furniture”.

He was correct. And even today pets are often regarded as a piece of furniture under the law which is entirely inappropriate in the 21st-century.

The executor of Murphy’s will took the matter to court where Avanzino won. The judge hearing the case ruled that “the right to dispose of property after death does not extend to killing a living creature.”

The case led to California legislature passing a law prohibiting killing an animal in a will. So, in answer to the question in the title, in California you cannot request that your cat or dog is killed on your passing. Thank God for that.

My search on the Internet for more information about this was fruitless. It is not the kind of question that you ask Google for answers to, it seems to me. You’ll have to make your own enquiries at the time on a state-by-state basis in the US.

However, if you are the executor of a will in which it is requested that the companion animal of the deceased is euthanised, you should question that request and essentially ignore it unless it is right and proper for health reasons to euthanise the pet. You should find an alternative method which is to rehome the animal. You might need a court order to save the animal’s life. Or perhaps you might obtain the full agreement of all beneficiaries to not euthanize. That should do the trick.

The no-kill movement was founded on that seminal case and the inspiring work of Richard Avanzino. He said that saving Sido, “was the turning point”. He meant the turning point from killing and disposing of unwanted pets to preserving their life and doing all one can to find a new home for them.

It is interesting because Avanzino said: “Death is not a kindness, animals, as our best friends, deserve more than an easing into the next world.”

Those words are echoed, day-to-day, in the deeds of Nathan Winograd. Winograd believes that PETA, the high-profile animal rights charity, believe that easing unwanted cats into the next world is the humane thing to do.

I think, however, that Winograd has taken a rather extreme view on PETA’s philosophy regarding feral cats. They do not have an absolute philosophy to kill feral cats living on the streets. It is more nuanced than that.

Below are some no-kill articles.

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