While there are clear procedures in place for custody of children and division of property post-divorce, the law offers little guidance on an issue often of great importance to divorcing couples: the family pet. Traditionally, the law recognizes a family dog or cat as nothing more than property to be divided along with the couches, TV’s, and other household goods. The law falls short of reality in this situation, as many people love their pets as bona fide family members.
While pets are traditionally viewed as property in the eyes of the law, some courts and states are beginning to recognize the issue as more complex than allocating a piece of property to one spouse or the other. In 2013, a New York Court agreed that the family dog “enjoyed a status greater than mere chattel.” The Court ruled that a “best for all concerned” standard should be applied to dogs. This ruling was affirmed by another New York Court in 2018. It was noted that in regard to a certified service or emotional support animal, the Court’s analysis would center around the animal’s role as a service animal to one spouse. Three states- Alaska, California and Illinois- have enacted laws that allow the courts to consider the “best interest” of the pet, the same standard used in child custody cases.
Even though not all states allow for pet custody to be determined or discussed by courts, families are welcome to work out these issues through mediation and negotiation with their attorneys. One of the primary benefits of settlement and mediation is that parties have the ability to come up with creative solutions that fall outside of the Court’s normal power. Creative solutions involving family pets include agreeing to an actual schedule of who has the pet on certain days, sending the pet with the children as they go back and forth between parents, or at least allowing the party who is not awarded the family pet the opportunity for some kind of visitation.
Missouri and Kansas do not yet have clear guidelines for how to treat family pets in divorce cases. Accordingly, working with your attorney on a creative solution in mediation or settlement negotiations is the best way to ensure your pet is treated as a valued member of your family.
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