It seems that too many marriages don’t last. It is a sad fact of life. Since the legalization of same-sex marriage, these numbers are even greater. It is also becoming increasingly more common for couples to opt for owning pets as opposed to having children.
Everyone who has ever owned a pet knows that they are an important part of the integral fabric of the family. When a family breaks up, the question of who the beloved dog or cat ends up with has been left up to the courts which have been allowed to act as though the animals like they were an inanimate piece of furniture. They were classified as part of the property to be divided up between the pair, usually on the basis of physical possession no matter what the circumstance may be.
Too many times, the animal has been used as a bargaining chip to be held against the other party in an effort to get something the other party desired. One party might request dog custody so that the other party will give them something they really want in trade, such as withdrawal of a request for alimony. These practices have continued because the courts do not recognize our pets as something with a ‘unique nature’ and emotions.
Are Pets Considered Property?
Three states, Alaska, California, and Illinois, have explicitly rewritten their divorce laws to include petitions for custody of the family pet. There has been sweeping national reform proposed that would consider the overall concept of ‘the best interest of the pet.’
It is becoming more commonplace for a couple to spend more and more time and money negotiating for the possession of the family pet than for the house or furniture. Since tradition has always identified the family pet as nothing more than a possession, it is a newer concept to explicitly request pet custody in a divorce.
If this developing law takes hold nationally, one would be able to sue for custody of the family pet through proof of ownership or proof that it is in the animal’s best interest to remain with that party. We currently see national trends of a growing number of courts acknowledging that people have a special relationship with their pet.
Even though the three states have laws pertaining to petitioning for dog custody, there is still an element of pets being property. The new California law actually does classify pets as property, but in the section of ‘Unusual Provisions.’ While this does protect them more than the couch, it might leave someone out. In California, it is not uncommon for people to have visitation with their pets if they don’t have full-time custody.
One of the few drawbacks of the California law is that the court is not required to hear these petitions for custody. They have the option of doing so. This means that if the judge is an animal lover they will be more likely to hear the case with the focus it deserves. Non-pet owner judges will probably not want to hear the petition for custody.
While no program is absolutely perfect yet, it is an excellent start. Presenting the court with the facts and letting the court decide the fairest custody arrangement is how it should have been done all along. Recognizing our pets as living, breathing, loving beings with whom we have relationships is one of the reasons that so many of us are pet owners in the first place.
The Truth Is, Pets Are family
The developing state of the law on pet custody in divorce situations means that across the country, there is more focus on treating the pets in our family as sentient beings as opposed to on the same level of importance as the furniture. As the law develops further, it is expected that some common considerations be taken into account. These considerations could include:
- Which party feeds the pet?
- Who actually adopted the pet?
- Who buys the food, toys, and other necessities?
- Who takes the pet for walks?
- Who takes the pet to his or her veterinarian appointments?
- Who protects the pet?
- Who spends the most time with the pet?
- Have there been allegations of domestic violence or abuse against the pet?
Pets are emotional beings. Their unique nature allows them to feel. They are known to experience trauma and separation anxiety. They are capable of mourning the loss of other pets or the loss of their owners.
One concern that those opposed to these laws has is that having the ability to petition for pet custody will give the divorcing couple one more thing to fight about. There are already numerous examples of one party withholding the animal from the other party in an effort for them to make some desired concession.
There is already a growing trend in this direction as more and more cases are drawn out over who gets dog custody. This is making many dissolution proceedings far more expensive in those states that don’t have an active law pertaining to pet custody in divorce as the arguments can continue over time.
The bottom line to this argument is that if we treat our pets as families when we are married, why are they treated differently during the dissolution of marriage proceedings. The law needs to develop uniformly across the country. Using the pets as pawns needs to be uniformly disallowed throughout the United States, and bias on the bench because a like or dislike of animals as household pets need to be addressed.
Using pets as pawns when a marriage ends has been going on for many years. It is a part of the anger that can happen at any time that a marriage ends. Standardizing and developing this law across the country should incorporate some manner for that bias not to affect the proceedings. There are enough people opposed to this law that it might be wishful thinking to expect it, but we pet owners can certainly hope for the best.
Are You Looking For a Family and Divorce Attorney?
Call our office at 281-762-0578 for a consultation with Vonda Covington. I can help you navigate the troubled waters during this tough time.