Divorce Laws in the U.S Treat Family Pets as Personal Property
Doggie Custody, Visitation and Support?
As more and more people tend to view companion animals as members of the family, questions often arise about what might happen to a beloved family pet if its owners get divorced.
The fact is that even though many pet owners choose to personify their pets, and many people view their pets almost as children, the law in virtually all U.S. states views animals as mere personal property to be treated as such in the event of a divorce.
This means that divorce courts will typically not make decisions concerning ongoing obligations of pet custody, visitation and support as they do with children. And, with very few exceptions, divorce courts will not make property distribution decisions concerning family pets with considerations of the “best interest” of the animal in mind.
Why Do Divorce Laws Treat Pets as Personal Property?
With so many people treating their pets as members of the family these days, why are divorce courts reluctant to treat the family dog as anything more than a piece of property when the pet’s “parents” divorce? The Florida case of Ronald and Kathryn Bennett provides a good lesson.
In that case, the couple agreed to virtually all the issues involved in their divorce. The only thing they could not agree on was who should get Roddy, the dog. The trial court decided that Mr. Bennett should have possession of Roddy, and awarded Mrs. Bennett visitation with Roddy every other weekend and every other Christmas.
And then the real trouble began.
Custody Battle Over the Family Pet?
Mr. Bennett filed a motion for rehearing in the trial court claiming that Roddy was a premarital asset (that is, that Mr. Bennett owned Roddy prior to marrying Mrs. Bennett). Mrs. Bennett filed, among other things, a motion for contempt of court asking that the court transfer custody of Roddy to her because Mr. Bennett was refusing to comply with the visitation schedule.
After hearing arguments, the trial court decided to change the visitation schedule to enable Mrs. Bennett to have Roddy every other month.
Pets Are Not Children, and the Courts Are Busy Enough Enforcing Child Custody Matters
The Bennett case ultimately made its way to Florida’s First District Court of Appeal. That court reiterated that, in spite of the fact that many people consider pets to be members of the family, under Florida law, animals are personal property and there is no basis in the law for granting custody or visitation for personal property.
Acknowledging that some states have recognized a “special status” for family pets in divorce proceedings, the court said:
Determinations as to custody and visitation lead to continuing enforcement and supervision problems (as evidenced by the proceedings in the instant case). Our courts are overwhelmed with the supervision of custody, visitation, and support matters related to the protection of our children. We cannot undertake the same responsibility as to animals.
And with that, the appeals court sent the case back to the trial court to make a decision about Roddy consistent with Roddy’s status as personal property.
Divorce Settlement Agreements
Of course, divorcing couples may always reach their own agreements concerning how they will deal with the family pet. A couple getting a divorce may seek the advice of divorce lawyers to draw up formal settlement agreements that specifically address issues of pet custody, visitation and support.
Whether and to what extent a court would step in to enforce those provisions in the event of future disagreements will depend upon whether the courts in the particular state view pets strictly as personal property.
Sources: Bennett v. Bennett, 655 So. 2d 109 (Fla. 1st DCA 1995); T. Christopher Wharton, Fighting Like Cats and Dogs: The Rising Number of Custody Battles Over the Family Pet, 10 J.L. Fam. Stud. 433 (2008).
Additional Resources: Filing for Divorce in Florida; Contested Divorce in Florida; How to Hire an Attorney
Disclaimer: This article is in no way intended as legal advice. For answers to questions related to specific legal issues, one should contact an attorney in one’s local area.