Are pets property or members of the family? Until recently in American history, pets have merely been property in a cute and playful package. Yes, the dog was fun to play fetch with, and the cat was adorable, but they were still just considered property. However, the recent increase of “pet custody” cases give credence to the idea that pets are more than just a purchase from the pet store. Our animals are considered to be part of the family, tagging along on road trips, sleeping in our beds, and, now, part of some custody battles in divorce cases.
The Humane Society of America estimates that 39% of U.S. households own at least one dog, and 33% of U.S. households own at least one cat. As most divorces show, people tend to fight over who gets what: who gets the car, who gets the house, who gets custody of the kids, etc. so it naturally makes sense that a divorcing couple would disagree over who can keep Spot or Ms. Kitty.
A wonderfully clarifying article on this topic was published in 2006 by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, and written by Ann Hartwell Britton. According to Britton, “The party that can prove the strongest ownership rights, . . . by showing proof with receipts of purchase and veterinary care, can build a strong case for keeping the animal, whether that person has suitable housing for the animal or not.” So, the party who can show they financially provided for the pet is the party who generally gets custody.
Courts around the nation have reacted to pet custody cases in a variety of ways, from open hostility to indignity to complete understanding. Based on the jurisdiction and the individual judge, the family pet may go to the person who pays for its food and vet bills, or it may go to the person who showed it the most love and attention, or the judge may decide an alternative arrangement. Other than custody, which may or may not be ruled on by a court, pet support is often an issue in these cases. Britton goes on to explain in her article that “pet support is best negotiated in an out-of-court settlement because courts that view pets as property will not order support.”
So, ultimately, who gets the dog? Britton opines based on her analysis of the case law that it truly depends on which jurisdiction the case is in, and who the judge is. She does go on to claim that “it is high time we recognize our pets as more than mere property and dispose of archaic thinking that a dog’s ‘plight doesn’t amount to a handful of kibble when a couple splits up.’”