Emergence of Pet Custody Disputes

Often times, a client will be sitting in their attorney’s office discussing settlement terms of their divorce matter. They will say “she can have the timeshare … I don’t care about the Porsche … but under no circumstances can she have Fido!” Fido, or course, is not one of the parties’ children. He is the parties’ eight year old Beagle.

This scenario is becoming more common as pets are not treated as items of property, but rather as members of one’s family and their companions. Elderly persons have a therapeutic, if not spiritual, attachment to their pets. Single persons rely on their pets for security. Grieving persons rely on their pets as a source of comfort. Young children experience pure joy and contentment at the companionship and friendship their pets provide. The Courts are beginning to change their outlook regarding pet custody disputes to adopt this point of view as well. More often than not, people are willing to expend copious amounts of legal fees to ensure that they receive ownership of their companion pets.

Animals are technically considered to be property, and in divorce matters, as with any other items of property, the presiding Judge or Magistrate will typically equitably divide up all items of property between the parties. Animals would be included in this mix, similar to items of furniture or kitchen appliances. However, an increasing trend that is now emerging is that the Court is beginning to reject the strict property analysis when determining custody of parties’ pets, and is now using the best interest standard applied to determining child custody disputes. Many Courts are finding that animals have feelings and are individuals, and their welfare and best interest need to be taken into consideration when an award of custody is made.

Among those factors to be considered are which party paid attention to the pet’s basic daily needs; who takes the pet to the veterinarian; who provides for the pet’s social interactions (in the case of dogs) with other dogs and/or people; which party maintains appropriate supervisions to ensure state and local regulations are complied with; and which party has the greatest financial capability of providing for the pet’s needs.

I consider my dog, William Wallace (named after the valiant tough-as-nails warrior in Braveheart, but he is really more of a soft teddy bear), to be my first born child. I treat him just as I treat my son – he gets a birthday party, birthday presents, Christmas presents, and presents for no reason at all. I take him on car rides, and have special “Mommy-Wallace” time with just us. These issues speak to my heart, and if you find yourself in a dispute regarding pet custody, please contact me at Cynthia H. Clark & Associates, LLC