Pets and Divorce: Property or Something More?

There is a long line of case law that has established pets as personal property. From personal injury cases that dealt with the loss of a pet in an accident to cases considering whether the pet could “inherit” its owner’s estate, the courts have largely held that pets are indeed considered personal property.

Family law is no different. In a Florida divorce case, the Court ordered that the husband keep the couple’s dog, but also granted “visitation” to the wife. On appeal, the appellate court reversed that decision and firmly noted that the dog was merely personal property, giving the court no authority to make decisions regarding custody or visitation. [1]

Of course, Fido is not just “property” in the strictest sense—to most people, a pet is much more significant than, say, a toaster. In recent years, the number of cases dealing with “pet custody” has increased manifold; in fact, the Los Angeles Times reported on this phenomenon in a 2005 article. [2] In a Virginia divorce case, the Court took into consideration that the family dog had “bonded” with the husband and the husband “adopted” it; the Court also noted that the dog was “like a child” to both husband and wife. [3] In a New York case, similarly, the Court looked at the fact that a divorcing couple’s cat had a limited life expectancy and had prospered at living in the marital home when it ordered assignment of the marital property, including the cat. [4] Those types of analyses suggest that the Courts looked at the best interests of the pet to decide with whom the pet should stay.

However, in none of these cases did the courts hold that “custody” of pets is to be considered using the same standard and factors as would be used to determine the custody of minor children. In other words, none of these cases went so far as to suggest that dividing time with the family pet is an issue of “custody” or “visitation;” rather, each case still considered the pets to be personal property for purposes of division.

So, are pets truly personal property, to be divided using the typical standard for equitable distribution during a divorce? Currently, in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the answer is yes. Time will tell whether the Courts shift towards considering pets to be anything more in the course of a divorce.

If you have questions about pets in the context of a divorce, schedule a free consultation with our office. Call 978-225-9030 during regular business hours or complete a contact form here, and we will get back to you at our earliest opportunity.

[1] Bennett v. Bennett, 655 So.2d 109, 110 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1995).

[2] Sanjiv Bhattacharya, To Love, Honor and Belly Scratch: Marriages Come and Go But Judging by the Number of Rising Pet-Custody Disputes, Some Passions Endure, L.A. Times Mag., Jan. 9, 2005, at 20.

[3] Conahan-Baltzelle v. Baltzelle, 2004 WL 1959486 (Va. Ct. App. 2004).

[4] Raymond v. Lachmann, 264 A.D.2d 340, 695 N.Y.S.2d 308 (1st Dep’t 1999).