In the case of a divorce, courts have traditionally treated dogs and other pets like any other piece of property. However, recently, there has been a push to allow man’s best friend to be treated more like children – with hearings to consider who is best suited to have custody. Courts have had mixed responses and struggle with the issue.
Equitable division statutes – the rules which seek to divide marital property in a fair and equal way – are not well suited for pets, whose economic value is usually low but their intangible personal and sentimental value can be very significant. On the other hand, to have a full-blown custody hearing that considers all the best interests and idiosyncrasies of a poodle would be a laughable waste of judicial resources.
Courts in some states have sought to find a healthy middle ground. The Supreme Court of Vermont affirmed in 2014 that pets are still personal property but recognized their difference from other non-living personal property. Accordingly, they held that factors outside of those that normally guide equitable distribution may be considered, including the welfare of the animal and the emotional connections between the animal and each spouse. Litigants may provide evidence such as the animal’s daily routine, comfort, and care, as well as testimony about the role of the animal in the lives of the spouses.
A court in New York went farther and has adopted a “best for all concerned” test for dealing with division of the family pet. The standard provides each side with the opportunity to prove (1) why he or she will benefit from having the pet in their life; and (2) why the pet has a better chance of “living, prospering, loving and being loved” in the care of one spouse as opposed to the other.
It is yet to be seen whether this trend will continue. Maryland still treats pets as property for this purpose. But it is true that people have never been more willing to spend for their pets, illustrated by the pet industry reaching a record fifty-eight billion dollars ($58,000,000,000) in 2014. However, with judicial budgets as tight as ever, some judges may resist funneling away money from more pressing issues such as hearings for custody of children (the human ones).
Image Credit: Lon Martin