Pet Custody: Who is Entitled to Keep the Family Pet?
Have you ever wondered what might have happened to Cheeta if Tarzan and Jane had decided to split up? If Fred and Wilma had gone through a nasty divorce, which one would have gotten Dino? Remember Lassie? If Timmy’s parents, Ruth and Paul Martin, had divorced would Lassie’s barking, in an attempt to explain which party she wanted to live with, have even mattered to a judge?
When people divorce, or even when roommates part ways, disputes over what happens to household pets and pet custody can get contentious. Feelings over what is to happen to the family dog, cat, or bird after a split tend to be much more passionate than they are regarding what is to happen to a lawn mower, cappuccino machine, or even to that cool washer/dryer set. That reality is why we at Holzfaster, Cecil, McKnight & Mues are seeing more and more cases involving pets and the right to keep custody of, or visit with, family pets once a split occurs.
Often, pet owners who are facing divorce or a split of some dating or roommate relationship want to treat their household pets as family members, much like children, and they expect the courts to do likewise. Unfortunately, courts tend to view pets as personal property. In 1995, after a divorce court awarded custody of the family dog to the husband but gave the wife visitation rights, the Florida District Court of Appeals in Bennett v. Bennett found that the dog was just personal property. That meant that the dog had to belong to just one person and that it was not subject to any kind of visitation rights. In 2002, the Pennsylvania Appeals Court in Desanctis v. Pritchard held that, under the terms of the divorce agreement, the dog and its social schedule belonged exclusively to the wife. In its ruling, the Court stated that “in seeking ‘shared custody’ and a ‘visitation’ arrangement, Appellant [husband] appears to treat Barney, a dog, as a child.
Despite the status owners bestow on their pets, Pennsylvania law considers dogs to be personal property.” The husband was denied visitation rights.
But some courts do understand that pets can carry more importance than any other piece of chattel in the house. Way back in 1981, in Arrington v. Arrington, a Texas Appeals Court permitted court ordered visitation rights with respect to a family pet following a divorce. In 2009, in Houseman v. Dare, a New Jersey woman was awarded $1,500.00 for a dog that her fiancé refused to return after she and the fiancé broke up. In its ruling, the Appeals Court noted that money was inadequate compensation for the pet and concluded that a pet, like a family heirloom, has “special subjective value” that cannot be compensated by money alone.
As stated above, courts in this country, including Ohio courts, generally view pets as personal property. Because of that, and despite the near “child-like” status that pet owners place on their animals, Ohio courts will treat household pets like any other item of personal property when deciding “pet custody”. If people cannot agree on who gets pet custody, a reviewing court will next look at each individual’s relationship to the pet and will most likely award primary pet custody to the person who spent the most time taking care of the pet. If both parties shared in the care, then a court should dig deeper and examine the following:
- Who purchased the pet?
- Who paid the vet bills?
- Who took the pet to the vet?
- Who was responsible for feeding the pet each day?
- Who was responsible for washing, brushing or grooming the pet?
- Who purchased supplies (food, toys, kennels, litter or other products) for the pet?
- Who spent the most time playing or bonding with the pet?
- Who paid for any special training classes?
- If the pet needed to be walked, who walked the pet?
As attorneys representing pet owners, we typically argue that post break-up home and work situations should also be examined. The best, or most suitable, living situation for the pet should carry a lot of weight in determining pet custody. A big dog living in a small apartment versus in a home in the country is an obvious example. Equally as important in determining who gets primary pet custody is the work or travel schedule of each party. If one party is a travelling salesperson or works a job that will require boarding an animal for extended periods of time, that might be the deciding factor in a pet custody dispute.
Finally, the presence of children can also play a huge part in pet custody cases. A parent who gets primary custody of any children in a divorce case is also much more likely to get custody of any pets if the children have bonded with those pets. We, as attorneys, typically argue that the best interests of the child, as well as the best interests of the pet, means that the two should stay together.
What is the best way to avoid a Pet Custody dispute?
If you are considering adopting a pet with your spouse, significant other, roommate or sibling, try to avoid any dispute as early as possible. Consider a “prenuptial agreement” regarding your pet as soon as you adopt it or at least decide early on who will take the pet or how time with the pet will be split up if things go bad. The most important thing to remember in pet custody cases, though, is that it’s not just about what’s best for you, it’s also about doing what’s best for your pets
Do you need additional information on Pet Custody Disputes?
For additional information on Pet Custody and Divorce, make sure you check out these previous Ohio Family Law Blog articles: Who Gets Custody of Rover and Pet Ownership in Divorce Proceedings or click on the word pet custody above and learn more about attorneys in Ohio who are familliar with this area of the law and will be dedicated to helping you secure your rights regarding your loved one.
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John C. Meehling
Attorney John C. Meehling is a Family Law Attorney from Dayton, Ohio, and contributor to the Ohio Family Law Blog. Attorney Meehling recently joined the Dayton law firm of Holzfaster, Cecil, McKnight & Mues on November. 1, 2010.