We all know that breaking up is hard to do. It’s especially difficult when animal companions are part of what is distributed or shared between two newly separate households.
Recently, a divorcing Canadian couple could not agree over custody of their two dogs. After inundating the court with pleadings describing the several pets they had cared for over the years (and who had done most of the caring), the wife asked the judge to treat the dogs like children, awarding custody to her with visitation for the husband. Clearly frustrated with the request and the case’s drain on limited judicial resources, Justice Richard Danyliuk of Court of Queen’s Bench for Saskatchewan wrote a lengthy decision that made headlines in Canada and the United States.
The judge began his decision by declaring his love of animals. “Dogs are wonderful creatures.” He then went on to say, “Many dogs are treated as members of the family with whom they live. But after all is said and done, a dog is a dog. At law it is property, a domesticated animal that is owned. At law it enjoys no familial rights.”
The same is true in most jurisdictions across the United States.
Animal law specialist Adam Karp of Bellingham, Wash., is familiar with the Canadian judge’s reaction and position. Because courts are overburdened, judges are reluctant to tackle issues they don’t have to, including custody of pets. Divorce trials are also low on the judicial popularity list, and asking for a ruling on pet custody sometimes pushes the limits of their patience. “The inexact fit of child custody statutes calls for ingenuity, what some reject as a type of ‘judicial activism.’” Karp says. “Judges may look for a cookie-cutter approach to quickly dispose of such cases, and categorizing an animal as mere ‘property’ allows that. But these issues go to the core of our hearts and hearths.
“Though the Canadian judge’s opinion was not entirely dismissive, and he assuredly spent a long time on it, one wonders if the time taken to author the opinion could have been better spent doing justice to the parties’ situation. Regardless, his attentiveness to the legal issue shows that animal lives matter and seriously elevates the dialogue within courts and society.”
Family vs. Property
Closer to home, I spent more than 30 years practicing family law in Washington and Idaho, focusing much of my practice on representing the interests of children whose parents were fighting over custody and visitation. For most of those years, I observed that family pets were the forgotten victims of divorce. Very rarely were they mentioned in property distributions, even though in both Washington and Idaho, as in most states, pets are considered property and so could have been listed along with household furnishings, vehicles and retirement benefits. If a divorcing couple had kids, typically their pets stayed with the parent with whom the children were going to reside the majority of the time.
More difficult are the cases where there aren’t any children and the couple lived together without the legal status of marriage. When they break up, they generally must reach agreements on dividing property, including pets, without court assistance. Perhaps they acquired a dog while together. Both bonded with the dog—and the dog with them— and while they’ve decided to break up with each other, neither wants to break up with the dog. What to do?
Some couples come up with informal agreements. For example, they agree to alternate custody, meeting weekly to make the exchange. It might work for a while, but just as with shared custody of children, all it takes to upset the plan is for one person to move a significant distance away (making traveling to exchanges a burden both in time and expense) or to become involved with a new human (setting off a storm of jealousy).
In a Washington state case, a couple who had lived together and then separated agreed to share custody of their dog. This arrangement was stressed when one of them moved, and broken altogether when the woman became involved with a new man. The former boyfriend not only refused to return the dog at the scheduled time, he took the dog and disappeared. The woman hired a private investigator to locate her dog, and an attorney to bring legal action to regain possession of him.