Property Or Family Member? Pet Custody And Divorce

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Many of us who own pets know that they are much more than just property. They may be valued members of our family and in some cases, even surrogate children. The law, however,  often views them as possessions and treated as such. That is changing, however. A recent case the Oregon Supreme Court ruled on may impact how the law regards our animal companions moving forward, which could bleed over into divorce and pet custody battles.

The Case

The case at hand involves a Portland-area dog owner found guilty of starving and neglecting her animal. A veterinarian collected evidence for the case, drawing blood from the dog. The issue is that the vet acquired this evidence without a warrant.

Oregon’s high court ruled that dogs are not “mere” property, like a suitcase or other container, and don’t require a warrant to examine internally. In broad terms, this decision makes it easier to pursue criminal charges against animal abusers. It also represents a changing tide when it comes to how the law views animals.

Legal Value Of Pets

There is often a discrepancy between how animal lovers view their pets and how the law looks at them. As stated, in a legal sense, the courts consider pets like dogs, cats, horses, and all the rest, property, no different than a car, couch, or other possession.

Though pet owners tend to ascribe them a much greater worth and importance, companion animals have a monetary value. In many cases, the courts assign a dollar amount to animals and treat them similarly to any other piece of property.

This has changed somewhat, and though it’s a gradual process, courts have recognized the significance of companion animals beyond a simple dollar amount. In some cases, settlements accounted for the emotional loss pet owners experience. A handful of states, like Tennessee, passed legislation that can award substantial monetary settlements for the loss of affection and friendship of pets. Continuously evolving, this is an interesting area to watch develop.

How This May Impact Divorce Settlements

Custody battles involving children are often hotly contested cases. Increasingly in recent years, so are fights over who gets pets in a divorce. While there are numerous legal precedents when it comes to determining where the kids end up, as far as pets go, even though these situations often involve similar emotions, the path is not as clear.

Traditionally, courts generally treat companion animals as property. On paper, they have the same status as an end table, lamp, or another asset to be divided in a divorce settlement. Animals continue to play vital roles in many of our lives, and battles over pet custody are now commonplace. This isn’t going to change anytime soon, and as we continue to attribute significance to their presence, our pets’ legal status changes by degrees. With this latest case, it may be another step in that direction.

Determining Pet Custody

Despite whatever emotional weight and value we give to our pets since the law classifies them as property and distributes them as such when it comes to cases of divorce and separation. This varies a great deal from judge to judge and court to court, and you can never be fully certain how things will go in a particular case. Some judges are sympathetic while others may view arguing over who gets the cat as a waste of time.

When it comes to determining who gets pet custody in a divorce, a number of things come into play. Who acquired the pet in the first place can be a determining factor. If there is a purchase agreement or adoption certificate in the case of rescue animals, the court may take that into account. If you obtained your dog before your marriage, that will likely factor in. Things get tangled, however, as many couples, married or otherwise, often adopt or purchase pets together.

Who fills the role of the primary caregiver may also factor into pet custody. If one spouse tends to the day-to-day needs of an animal, that can come into play. If you feed the cat, walk the dog, take them to the vet, buy their food, make sure they’re properly licensed and microchipped, and see to all of those necessities, it may figure into guardianship. As before, things become hazy if both spouses equally participate in this regard.

It’s even possible that the court, like with custody cases involving actual children, may take the animal’s best interests into account. If it’s clear that one spouse or the other is the better provider or the animal’s health and well-being may be in question, they may award custody on that basis.

How To Protect Pet Custody

As much importance as we give many of our companion animals, the topic of pet custody may figure prominently in your divorce. With their legal standing falling in such shadowy territory, you may want to take steps to protect your interests.

Entering into a premarital agreement is one way to make sure you retain custody of your pets in a divorce. This is easier when it involves pre-existing ownership, but you can create a treaty that specifies where the animals end up.

Even if you and your spouse acquire an animal together, you can set up a custody plan ahead of time. That way, if your relationship crumbles around you, your animals are taken care of. These types of arrangements may not always be 100% legally binding, but the court may take them into account during the division of property.

Other options to explore include arbitration or mediation. Some judges won’t want to hear this type of thing. So this route may provide the opportunity to more fully present your case to retain pet custody than in traditional divorce proceedings. In the process, you may even be able to concede certain assets and come to an accord with your spouse.

As with real children, shared custody with visitation rights is also a possibility. You and your soon-to-be-ex may be able to work out an informal agreement. Again, this may not be legally enforceable, but if both parties are willing to play ball, you may want to walk down this path.

In a legal sense, the area of pet custody doesn’t always reflect the current social standards. This is changing in a number of ways, as illustrated by the recent case in Oregon. For the most part, however, the law looks at pets as property and most often treats them that way in a divorce.

Many attorneys have found creative ways to debate and argue the relative value of companion animals in a legal arena. Though attitudes and laws continue to shift, it’s a gradual process. If you form close emotional connections with your pets, you may want to take steps to ensure that they remain in your care in the case of divorce.

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