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Her last gift: A little house in Newton, just for the cats

By Jenifer B. McKim
Globe Staff / January 17, 2010

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NEWTON - Muriel Bayne’s love for her cats was well known on Staniford Street in Auburndale. Neighborhood children called her the “Cat Lady’’ and Bayne’s pets were often seen contentedly peering from a picture window at the small ranch house where she lived for decades.

But Bayne, 77, had a weak heart. And after her husband’s death in 2001, she started worrying about what would happen to her cats when she died. So she penned a will, leaving them the home and a $300,000 trust. Weeks later, Bayne’s heart gave out.

That’s how Shadow, Dolly, Lady, and Spot became trust fund cats.

“It is kind of bizarre, quite frankly,’’ said George Kickham, the Brookline attorney hired to make sure the cats stayed at home. “We tried to talk this woman out of it.’’

Kickham, however, was legally bound to follow Bayne’s last wishes. The cats lived in the two-bedroom house for seven years under Kickham’s supervi sion until the last one - Spot - died in 2008. The property was recently bought by a medical student who, as it happens, owns an orange tabby named Mishmish.

Bayne’s unusual decision preceded the high-profile move by Leona Helmsley to leave $12 million to her dog, a Maltese named Trouble, when the billionaire hotel operator died in 2007. The sum was later reduced to $2 million by a judge. But estate planners and animal welfare activists say that making reasonable provisions for a pet’s care is important and becoming more common.

Too often, animals end up homeless or euthanized after an owner’s death, said Joanne G. Mainiero, president of the Massachusetts Humane Society, based in East Weymouth. To care for old and unadoptable felines, the nonprofit organization recently launched a fund-raising campaign to start a Cat Sanctuary. Mainiero praised Bayne for thinking ahead.

“The cats were at least taken care of without being euthanized or dumped somewhere,’’ she said. “It’s great they could enjoy the rest of their lives.’’

A growing number of states have created provisions for “pet trusts’’ in which owners are allowed to name animals as beneficiaries. Massachusetts is one of the few states that prohibits that kind of arrangement. Bayne got around the law by technically leaving her house and funds to Kickham, who was charged with caring for her animals.

In her will, she named Kickham as trustee “for the benefit for my surviving cats’’ and “upon the death of the last of the surviving cats’’ the trust would be terminated, the home sold, and proceeds distributed to the State of Israel, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, and the Salvation Army. Bayne left the rest of her estate, about $3.8 million, to the same three entities.

Bayne had no children and her only relatives were two distant cousins, according to probate documents.

Marie Mayer of Birmingham, Ala., widow of Bayne’s cousin William Mayer, said they saw little of their New England relatives. She said Bayne, who was a registered nurse before she married, treated her cats like children.

Kickham, 44, said his father, Charles Kickham Jr., helped Bayne write the will and tried to persuade her to give the pets - which he described as typical housecats - to someone who would care for them. But Kickham said Bayne told his father, “This is their home.’’

George Kickham said he made sure the heating bills were paid, the grass cut, and the sidewalks shoveled.

In her will, Bayne requested that a next-door neighbor, Michiko Finstein, attend to the basic needs of the cats. Finstein, 77, said that over seven years she visited twice a day to feed and play with them. She brought fresh chicken as a treat and changed the litter regularly. She also vacuumed and cleaned, and let the animals out into the yard. In winter, Finstein kept the heat at 75 degrees and in summer she set up fans to circulate air. She brought the cats to the veterinarian for routine care, and made sure they had been spayed or neutered.

After each died, she had them cremated and spread the ashes in her own back yard. First Shadow, dark black in color; followed by Lady, the mother of the other three; then Dolly, small and multicolored. Spot, black with a white dot on his nose, lived by himself for over a year before his death.

Finstein was paid about $100 a week for her services, but she said she was motivated more by love than money.

“If I was rich, I would have bought the house to take care of the cats,’’ she said. “I loved them.’’

While the animals got plenty of attention, the house started to fall into disrepair. As the years went by, roof shingles deteriorated and carpeting frayed. Neighbors asked one another what was going on - they never saw anyone inside or outside - but no one lodged a complaint with the city’s inspectional services department.

“I always thought it was rumors,’’ said a neighbor, Jim Barberio, about talk that the house had been left to cats. Barberio, 60, remembers Bayne putting name tags on each one and growing catnip in the yard. “I knew she liked cats,’’ he said.

After Spot’s demise, Kickham had the home cleaned and the furniture removed. He put the 1,204-square-foot house up for sale for $639,000 in September 2008.

About a year after the property went on the market and the price was dropped several times, Besam Khidhir of Canton, a 35-year-old medical and doctoral student at Boston University, toured it.

He was especially taken by the pine trees in the back yard and the big stone fire pit.

Khidhir, who eventually bought the house for $480,000 and moved in late last year, enjoyed hearing about its offbeat history from his real estate agent.

He still keeps a wooden plank hanging in the kitchen that lists the cats’ names - in Bayne’s handwriting - below the title, “Cat ventory.’’ She used it to track their whereabouts inside and out.

“Part of me felt sad that this old couple who lived in Newton had no children to pass on their assets,’’ Khidhir said. “At the same time, I think their cats were their children.’’

Jenifer B. McKim can be reached at jmckim@globe.com.