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Home > Dogs and the Law > Who Gets Custody of the Dog When the Owners Divorce?

Who Gets Custody of the Dog When the Owners Divorce?

December 4th, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

Divorce Laws in the U.S Treat Family Pets as Personal Property

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?

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.

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Categories: Dogs and the Law
  1. December 4th, 2009 at 17:01 | #1

    I have a friend who got an aussie after getting married. they got it from a breeder together. they divorced 2 years later, but settled amicably and share the dog. seriously. they take turns with the dog every few weeks. thankfully it was amicable. dog loves both parents. each one does different activities with her. I was shocked that this could even be an option or that divorced couples would be this amicable. but they love the dog so much and the dog is really quite attached to both, so they did the best thing for her.

    When we first got married, Mr. Wild Dingo owned Maggie, the dingo for which my company is named. She was a “naughty” dog. Very naughty and the running joke in our “mock” arguments was “If we get divorced YOU get the dingo” (meaning we’d wish that PIA on the other person)… Then Maggie and I went to obedience school. and what do you know? she became a model citizen. so much so that young children would LOVE to pet the dingo over fuzzy goldens and soft toy dogs. Maggie also got extremely attached to me. The running joke after that in our “mock” arguments was “If we get divorced “I” get the dingo!” Thankfully, we are not nor planning divorce. And our arguement for L& J is the same as the last argument we used for the dingo. We both want them. Guess we need to stay married! It’s a good execuse as any!
    Great story Frankie!
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  2. Suzanne
    December 4th, 2009 at 17:45 | #2

    @Wild Dingo
    I’m glad your friends were able to work out a friendly resolution among themselves regarding sharing their dog. That is really a healthy approach. I suspect that a lot of couples do that. In fact, we have a friend whose former girlfriend left her three cats with him (and his two cats) when she moved out. AND, she paid “cat support”! Something a court would never order.

    In any event, in light of the difference between the way we animal lovers view our furry family members and the way the law views them, people might think of staying together for the sake of their critters.

  3. February 26th, 2010 at 01:19 | #3

    Dog custody is been a big issue these days.

  4. May 11th, 2010 at 11:40 | #4

    Thanks for sharing this post it is just the information I was looking for.

  5. June 7th, 2010 at 21:55 | #5

    Custoday is one thing, visitation rights might be going a bit overboard. Too sad. Thanks for posting though!

  6. July 10th, 2010 at 02:59 | #6

    Our hounds have been establishing stronger and stronger relationships with their owners, Im sure custody is going to be a growing issue. Veterinarians are seeing the dollars spent on dog health dramatically increase.
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  8. September 9th, 2010 at 13:00 | #8

    I heard about it then and I didn’t believe it of course. But then, my best friend and her wife got divorce, I was wondering who will take care their pets, of course they have 3 pets and they love it so much, more than each other, I think? Now, they settled things out in the court upon who’s custody would their pets will be, and right there they vowed to take part of their pets. I was so shocked! I thought custody something would talk about children only, but hey, they’re happy with it now. Thanks for sharing this, you just remind me of that things.
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  9. October 6th, 2010 at 01:33 | #9

    Wow, i never thought pet custody would be an issue. I think it’s definitely more complicated for the court to decide for that, especially in a case where the pet cannot talk for him/herself. The best option of for the 2 parties divorcing to agree on something
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  10. November 11th, 2010 at 15:00 | #10

    This is becomming more and more of a issue as dogs become a bigger part of our families. I just hope couples look at the best thing for the dogs.
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