Dog lovers will not be surprised to learn that custody of the family dog is often a bone of contention in separation or divorce. However, they may be surprised to learn that Fido is considered personal property under state law, much like a piano or a favorite piece of jewelry. Many divorcing dog owners disagree with this law and want their dog to be treated like a child. Courts determine custody of a child based on what is in the “best interests” of the child. Judges (who may be dog lovers) are often torn between following the law, which treats the animal as an inanimate object, or giving in to the wishes of the parties.
Akers v. Vendors, a 1944 Indiana court case, appears to be the first reported case involving a dispute over a dog in a divorce. John Akers filed a legal proceeding to get his Boston Bull Terrier back from his ex-wife, Stella Sellers. The dog was not mentioned in the divorce decree, and Stella, who got the family home, ended up with the pet because she lived there. The court said the dog belonged to Stella because it was given to her by John during the marriage. This decision treated the dog like any other personal property gift.
Sixteen years later, in 1960, in Ballas v. Ballas, a California appeals court declined to consider whether the Pekingese family was community property or separate property, a relevant issue if the dog was being treated as personal property. She agreed with the trial court that Shirley Ballas should keep the animal because she was the one taking care of it. This is believed to be the first reported court decision in which a court considered the “best interest” of a pet when deciding who would get custody.
On Arrington v. Arrington, a 1981 Texas case, perhaps in response to Ballas, insisted that dogs are personal property (saying they should not be confused with humans), but opined that although AC Arrington had agreed that his ex-wife should have custody of the dog, Bonnie Lou, there should be enough love in the heart of Bonnie Lou. to allow visits with AC What dog lover wouldn’t agree?
Not long after that, an Iowa appeals court in In Stewart’s marriageAlthough he agreed that a dog is personal property, he affirmed the trial court award for Georgetta, the family dog, to Jay Stewart. Regardless of the fact that Jay had originally given the animal to his wife, Joan, as a Christmas present, the court noted that Georgetta accompanied Jay to his office and spent a substantial part of the day with him.
On Dickson v. DicksonIn 1994, in Garland County, Arkansas, the court issued a consent decree ordering Mr. Dickson to pay $ 150 per month in dog support in a joint custody agreement designating the former Ms. Dickson as the main custodian of the animal. Subsequently, the parties stipulated a modification of the decree to grant the ex-wife sole custody, and her ex-husband would no longer have responsibility for the expenses of the future care of the dog, since he no longer had an interest in the animal.
In the case of In re Marriage of Tevis-Bliech, in 1997, the Kansas court of appeals upheld a trial court decision that held that it lacked jurisdiction to modify a divorce agreement that (by contract) granted Michael Bliech a visit from Cartier, the family dog. . This left the visit intact.
Although not a published court decision, Dr. Stanley Perkins, an anesthesiologist, and his wife Linda made headlines in San Diego County, California, a few years ago when they got involved in a two-year dog fight for Gigi, a greyhound pointer mix they had adopted from an animal shelter. Linda won custody of the dog through legal theatricals such as a canine bonding study prepared by an animal behavior specialist and Gigi’s “A Day in the Life” video. What was unusual was not just the astronomical legal fees incurred in the fight over Gigi, but the judge’s apparent willingness to hear it all.
In a recent case in Alaska, the trial court attempted a shared ownership agreement between the divorcing parties and their chocolate labrador retriever, Coho. When that didn’t work, the court awarded custody to Stephen Gough and visits from Julie Juelf. When that didn’t work, he awarded sole custody to Stephen, meaning Julie had no visitation rights, a settlement the Alaska Supreme Court upheld in 2002 in Juelfs v. Gough.
Despite the above cases, most courts appear to be reluctant to make animal custody orders. On Nuzzaci c. NuzzaciIn 1995, a Delaware divorce court refused to sign a party-agreed order that included visitation with a golden retriever. The court stated that it did not believe it had the authority to enforce such an order if the parties later disagreed.
On Bennett v. BennettThat same year, a Florida appeals court refused to uphold a court order granting Kathryn Bennett visits with the parties’ dog, Roddy, every other weekend and every other Christmas. The appeals court said the lower court had no authority to grant custody or visitation with personal property.
And in DeSanctis v. Pritchard, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, in 2003, upheld the trial court’s dismissal of a lawsuit asking the court to enforce a settlement agreement that provided for joint possession of Barney, a mixed-breed golden retriever-golden labrador . The settlement agreement was deemed void to the extent that it attempted to grant visitation or joint custody of personal property.
Although custody of the family dog in divorce cases may seem like a trivial issue to some, dog lovers take it very seriously. The Animal Legal Defense Fund has presented amicus curiae in some divorce cases, suggesting that the judge consider what is best for the pet. Public and legal interest in “animal rights” is growing. There are reportedly 42 law schools offering courses in animal law, and at least two legal journals devoted to animal law, and others publish articles on the subject.
Despite objections that court records are already overloaded with ongoing disputes over custody, visitation, and child support, we may be heading toward the day when dogs are entitled to their day in court. divorce.