Pet Custody Creates Complication in Legal System

  • Courts still view pets as property.
  • Legal precedent regarding pet custody during divorce or separation proceedings is still developing.
  • Keep documentation of your contribution to your pet to help you win custody.

During a divorce, everything is divided. It’s not always equally divided, but it’s divided. If children are involved, custody is considered and decided for them, as well. Every bit of one spouse’s life is packed up and brought elsewhere, away from the ex-spouse. The only aspect left to decide is the custody of their pet.

Pet custody does not get brought up often, but the litigation over pet custody has increased over the past few years. More and more cases are being tried to determine the custody of a pet when a couple gets a divorce. A recent survey in the United Kingdom by Co-operative Pet Insurance showed that 20 percent of separating couples with pets have fought for custody of the animal after the end of the relationship. Considering that 83 percent of pet owners refer to themselves as “mom” or “dad,” according to a survey conducted by the American Animal Hospital Association, it really shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that an entire specialty field is being created for pet custody.

The problem in many of the legal disputes regarding custody of an animal is that the courts view the animal as property. Establishing an alternative to the status as property is a complex issue, but it is an issue that many legal organizations set out to do. The Animal Legal Defense Fund was created in 1979 in order to help expand the boundaries of animal law, including advocating for stronger enforcement of anti-cruelty laws, preventing animal abuse, educating others about animal law, and creating organizations to help extend the outreach and protection for future generations.

While this organization advocates for animals and animal law on a more national and global level, there are organizations, like the National Association for Biomedical Research, compiling a database of pet custody disputes in order to better understand the ever-evolving legal precedent in the case law.

Establishing precedent

In 1981, a married couple, in the midst of the divorce experience, was in a heated battle over property, and as the court began dividing it, the topic of their dog, Bonnie Lou, came up. The judge lauded the couple for caring about the dog as if it was a child, but he made it clear that the law has to view the dog as property. That being said, the wife won custody, with reasonable visitation from the husband.

In 1995, a husband is awarded custody of his and his soon-to-be ex-wife’s dog, Roddy, but the wife is granted visitation. The husband files an appeal to the visitation. Then, the District Court of Appeals judge ruled that the trial court lacked authority to order visitation with personal property and that the dog would be properly dealt with through the equitable distribution process.

Since then, the evolution of pet custody has continued. In 1999, a New York appeals court had to decide between roommates, who gained custody of a pet cat. In 2002, shared custody of a dog was sought and denied by a former spouse. A woman was awarded $1,500 from an ex-fiancé, after he refused to return the dog to her after they broke up, despite having a verbal agreement.

These cases are part of the countless examples as to the evolution of pet custody law. These cases help set the precedent for future cases to base their claims and arguments on, giving judges the evidence they need in order to make an educated ruling.

Keys to success

There are a variety of factors that go into who is typically retains primary custody of the animal. The preference generally goes to the ex-spouse who bought the animal (especially if it was before the marriage or before one spouse moved in), is responsible for its day-to-day care and support, pays the majority of the veterinary bills, has primary custody of the children (if there are children), and will be in a better situation overall to take care of the animal.

A good way to ensure custody of your pet in the event of a divorce is to be able to prove claims of being the primary caregiver of the animal. According to the Animal Legal Defense Fund, having paperwork for veterinary care, licensing, grooming, training classes, food, and other various items will greatly strengthen you case.

One of the best ways of stopping a pet custody dispute before it even starts is to get everything in writing. A pet custody agreement is actually available as a pre-printed form online that you can fill out or print in minutes. The forms can even help put a visitation schedule into writing for future legal reference.

The impact of loss

The impact of gaining or losing custody of one’s pet simply cannot be quantified. Losing a constant companion is never easy, and losing it to an ex-spouse can take an emotional toll on an individual. We, as a society, often has an emotional reaction seeing someone who has lost their spouse, children, or even custody of children, and no one would ever claim that losing a pet or custody of a pet is at the same emotional level of loss.

However, those suffering the loss of custody of their pet could benefit from the sensitivity of others, as they face an uphill battle against a court system that still is working on establishing the rules and legal precedents for pet custody.

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