Who Gets Rover?

“He might be cute and he might be furry, but he’s still property.” — Trial judge in a New Jersey divorce case

Reported cases may not reveal the degree to which pet disputes are part of divorce.  But consider these statistics.  Approximately one of every two marriages in the United States ends in divorce every year.  Of divorcing people, thirty percent own at least one dog and thirty-four percent own at least one cat.

Although people often consider their pets to be their children, or at least, like children, the law generally doesn’t see it that way.  When you divorce, your dog or cat is considered personal property.  Courts ordinarily will not arrange a schedule for access with a pet.  As a Pennsylvania judge stated, “Appellant is seeking an arrangement analogous, in law, to a visitation schedule for a table or a lamp.”

While this perception may be distressing—after all, our pets are sentient beings; they express love and loyalty, and we love them, too–some commentators think dealing with pets as property is less complicated and frustrating than accomplishing good outcomes by using a child custody model, which refers to the “best interest of the child,” as the standard.

Courts can determine who will own a pet, not only by considering who paid for the pet, but who has cared for it, walked and fed it, trained it and spent time with it.  And divorce courts have stated that one goal is to make sure that a family pet will be kept safe and free from abuse and abandonment.

On the other hand, a New Jersey court, while declaring that pets are not children, and adhering to the notion that there is no “best interest of the dog” standard, has ordered that a separating couple alternate possession of their dog on a regular basis. This outcome suggests that, at least in New Jersey, a court can order “shared possession” of a pet—as long as it isn’t called “custody.”

And here in Maryland, the St. Mary’s County Circuit Court ordered a husband and wife to rotate custody of their dog every six months.  But this is the exception and not the rule.