When couples get divorced, children are not the only ones who can get caught in custody disputes. As the New York Times reports, pet custody fights over the beloved chocolate lab can be just as painful.
Status of Pet Custody
Pet custody cases are becoming more and more prevalent around the country. That is because state lawmakers and advocacy groups are promoting the notion that the legal system should act in the best interests of animals.
Pets are becoming a recognized part of the family. About 15 years ago, states began to allow people to leave their estates to care for their pets. Recently, courts have gone so far as to award shared custody, visitation and even alimony payments to pet owners.
One case in San Diego that gained national headlines featured a pointer-greyhound mix named Gigi, who was the focus of a contentious divorce between Dr. Stanley and Linda Perkins.
At first, they were granted joint custody of Gigi, but neither human was satisfied with the arrangement. A court fight followed that took two years and cost about $150,000 in legal fees.
The court case involved a court-ordered “bonding study” conducted by an animal behaviorist and a videotape, “A Day in the Life of Gigi,” showing the dog spending time with Ms. Perkins, who was ultimately awarded sole custody.
It has been reported that there has been a 27% increase in pet-custody cases over the past five years, with 20% of respondents citing an increase in cases where judges had deemed pets an asset in a divorce.
Pet custody is not limited to just dogs and cats. Owners of exotic pets — including an iguana, an African grey parrot, a python, and a giant 130-pound turtle — have been involved in disputes.
Current Pet Custody Legislation
I’ve written about pet custody issues before. Alaska became the first state to enact a pet custody law. The law allows a court to consider the animal’s well-being. The measure, which defines animals as a “vertebrate living creature not a human being,” took effect in January of this year.
Currently, a bill was introduced in the House of Representatives in Rhode Island which is very similar to the law of Alaska which was enacted this year. The Rhode Island bill requires judges to “consider the best interest of the animal” in a divorce or separation.
The Times article also notes the popular theory that pet custody battles flare when there are fewer or no children in a family, and pets have become the focus of a couple’s emotions.
Historically, judges in divorce cases have gone through the same steps in determining pet ownership as they did with property. They figured out which property belonged to the couple, how much each piece was worth, and whether some agreement was in place about who got what.
Florida Pet Custody Law
Florida doesn’t have pet custody or visitation laws. Florida courts are already overwhelmed with the supervision of custody, visitation, and support matters related to the protection of children. Accordingly, Florida courts have not or cannot undertake the same responsibility as to animals.
A chocolate lab may be considered a member of the family to you, but under Florida law, your dog “Brownie” is just personal property to be divided in divorce in Florida.
Not all states have ruled out a visitation schedule for dogs. For instance, while Texas also views dogs as personal property, in one case a Texas court authorized visitation.
The New York Times article is here.