Deceased owner’s will stated that her pet should die and be buried with her

This is a moral conundrum although it’s entirely legal. The story concerns a dog, Emma, but it could equally concern the family cat. The dog owner lived in Richmond, Virginia, USA. The owner’s will requested that her dog, a Shih Tzu, be euthanised and buried with her. For the sake of convenience I have decided that the owner was a woman because of the type of dog concerned, a toy breed, but I might be wrong.

Shih Tzu, a toy dog
This is not the dog but the same breed, a Shih Tzu, a toy dog. Photo: Getty images
Until September 7th I will give 10 cents to an animal charity for every comment. It is a way to help animal welfare without much effort at no cost. Comments help this website too, which is about animal welfare.

On the owner’s death, Emma was put into the temporary custody of the Chesterfield County Animal Services on March 8. We are told that Emma was healthy. She was picked up about two weeks later by I presume the executor of the owner’s will and euthanised as directed under it.

We don’t know whether Emma has been buried with her owner as requested. There is confusion here because the Virginia cemetery code specifies that no pets can be “interred in the same grave, crypt, or niche as the remains of a human”. However, the New York Post reports that this code applies to commercial cemeteries and not family-owned burial plots.

The critical point is that pets, under the law, are still in a rather archaic way regarded as possessions of no more value than a washing machine or fridge. We know that. Therefore their owner can do as they wish with them under their will including putting them to sleep after their death.

It is not illegal but it is arguably unethical and immoral. It’s a question of personal taste it seems to me. I’m sure that some readers will find it perfectly acceptable. However, I suspect that most readers will find this story sad and the deceased owner’s wishes to be immoral.

The shelter said that they were perfectly able to re-home Emma and apparently they suggested to the executor that they could sign the dog over to them on numerous occasions. Their requests were turned down.

There is a responsibility here upon the executor of a deceased’s will. The executor could have gone against the request and used discretion to save Emma’s life and provided her with a new one.

Jason D Smolen, an estate planning attorney and the co-founding principle of SmolenPlevy in Vienna, Virginia told people.com:

“In Virginia, as elsewhere, animals are property. Unless you make specific plans for your pets, but their disposition rests in the discretion of your executor or estate administrator. As with other property, they can give away or sell your pets.”

Jason D Smolen

He spelled out the law and it is correct, obviously. The same would apply in the UK and in many other countries. A lot of the time people fail to make provision for their pet after their death. This can cause some confusion and difficulties for the executor, the person who administers the estate after the deceased’s death. It’s important to make provision for your pet but I wouldn’t suggest or advocate that you do what this person did and direct that your executor kill your pet. Personally, I find it objectionable as it is unnecessary and unkind to the animal. A true-loving companion animal guardian would not do this. Frankly, it is both selfish and self-indulgent.

Yes, we have to be kind to the wishes of this deceased person but the person is dead. She cannot take any benefit from having her dog euthanised and Emma’s body interred with hers. There’s no benefit to her in doing this. There’s no advantage. Therefore don’t do it. It seems that the deceased may have believed in the afterlife. That’s the obvious conclusion. In which case she believed that there was a benefit to her.

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