The relationship that people have with their pets is strong to the point that they are considered family members. The market for pet products is a multi billion-dollar industry (clothing, toys, medical care, food, etc.) and really shows that people tend to nurture and care for their pets like children. It should come as no surprise that, in a divorce or separate maintenance proceeding, the pets can become the focal point of a "custody" battle.
But does the law treat the pet like a child? Can one spouse be awarded primary custody of that beloved dog or cat while the other spouse has visitation rights? Does the non-custodial pet owner have to pay support to the custodial pet owner?
Family law litigation regarding pets is starting to change across the country. Effective January 17th, 2017, Alaskan judges are expressly required by law to address the interests of companion animals in divorce or marriage dissolution cases when deciding how to assign ownership, and the courts are explicitly allowed to award joint ownership of that animal. Effective January 1st, 2018, Illinois family courts can also consider the well-being of a companion animal in deciding whether to award sole or joint ownership to the parties. A similar bill was introduced in the Rhode Island legislature in early 2019 and continues to work its way through the lawmaking process. Slowly but surely, pets are getting recognition as being more than just things to be divided in the property settlement.
As the law currently stands in Michigan, pets continue to be treated as property that must be awarded to one party or the other in a divorce or separate maintenance action. Martial property in Michigan must be divided fairly and equitably between the parties, meaning it doesn't have to be a 50/50 split provided that the division was fair. There is no concept of joint-ownership, visitation or pet support here. If one spouse owned the pet before the marriage, that pet may be considered that spouse's separate property and might not be subject to proceedings to decide which spouse it should be awarded to.
In deciding which spouse should be awarded the pet, the judge may consider the following factors:
- Which spouse spends the most time with the pet?
- Which spouse is more capable of providing for the pet when it comes to food, vet visits and grooming?
- Which spouse is more interested in obtaining the pet as a way to exert some kind of control over the other spouse rather than emotional attachment to the animal?
It is possible that the parties to a divorce or separate maintenance might agree to some sort of custody arrangement with the pet coupled with visitation. This might be worked out privately or during mediation and this language might even be incorporated into a consent judgment. However, if a party breaches the agreement, the court might be reluctant to enforce any "pet custody" or "pet support" provisions in a contempt of court proceeding because the judge recognizes the animal as property owned by one of the parties only. If the relationship between the parties is hostile, then continuing contact with one another after the divorce over joint pet ownership simply invites more opportunities for conflict. The parties should not overlook the effect of the divorce or separate maintenance action on the pet itself. The spouses' negative feelings and the constant shifting between two households can cause the pet to become depressed which can manifest in loss of appetite, disengaging from physical activities and even having accidents inside of the house. Much like children, pets are empathetic and will react to the emotional state of the other members of the household.
If you are embroiled in a divorce or separate maintenance action involving a beloved pet, then you need the advice and guidance of an experienced family law attorney to find the right solution for your situation. Do not hesitate to contact the skilled lawyers at Kershaw, Vititoe & Jedinak PLC to get the best legal representation in your family court case today.