Divorce Courts Are Starting to See Dogs as More Than Furry Toasters

Pets aren't taken seriously in the eyes of most American courts. In fact, they're given the same weight as a toaster. Luckily, this is starting to change.

You have a good dog but a bad marriage. Your spouse grudgingly helps pay the vet bills but you’re the one who’s really there for the blood, sweat, barks, and tears. Anybody who knows you would have no doubt about who the dog’s owner — or, rather, the dog’s parent — really is.

After a few years, you inevitably divorce. During a messy legal spat, your spouse keeps the dog just to spite you. Since they paid for the dog’s care, the court, maddeningly, sides with them. The court isn’t capable of taking the dog’s best interests into account. They have receipts. They know who technically owns the dog, so that’s that.  

Such a scenario is a common legal nightmare for pet lovers. In the eyes of most American courts, there’s no difference between a couch and a pet during a custody dispute. While you see your dog as part of your family, most courts view a pet as property.

Manhattan pet trainer and Animal Planet network star Andrea Arden saw this heartbreaking scenario play out up close when one of her clients separated from her husband and lost her beloved dog in the acrimonious split.

They had raised their golden retriever puppy together and she decided to leave him,” Arden said. “She had been the primary caregiver of this dog, but in retaliation for her leaving, he put up a huge fight. He won and he got to keep the dog because all of the vet bills were paid by his credit card.”

While you see your dog as part of your family, most courts view a pet as property.

Losing a beloved pet in a divorce or bad breakup is a heart-rending experience. But, thanks to recent legislation, the legal status of American pets is starting to change. In January, Illinois became the second state after Alaska to enact a law that transforms how pets are treated in custody agreements. The Alaska law after which the Illinois bill was modeled, required courts to “take into consideration the well-being of the animal” in custody disputes. It seems simple: Under the law, courts can treat pets like sentient beings with beating hearts and fragile emotions. Instead of being seen as property, they’re treated in a manner that hews closer to the way courts treat children.

“People look at their pets as members of the family, not possessions,” said Illinois State Senator Linda Holmes, who sponsored the legislation, adding that the bill acknowledges the reality of the role animals play in modern American lives.

The legal change reflects the evolving relationship America has with their pets. Arden said that over the course of her 25-year career, pet owners have become increasingly emotionally attached to their animals.

I’ve seen a real shift where I think that the term pet parent really is more applicable than ever,” Arden said. “People really see themselves more as their pet’s parent than as an owner.”

While people are increasingly attuned to the well-being of pets, most courts extend the same empathy for pets as they do for home appliances.

While we can’t quantify whether or not we love our pets more than in the past, it’s clear American pet owners are investing more into their pets than ever before. According to pet care industry group the American Pet Products Association, pet owners spent $69.36 billion on them in 2017, about $30 billion more than they spent just a decade beforehand.

It’s also clear what pets Americans favor: Virtually all pet-custody disputes involve dogs. According to the 2017 American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers poll, 96 percent of lawyers said their pet custody disputes involved dogs, with cats and horses combined only accounting for one percent of cases. A 2014 AAML survey noted that attorneys settled disputes over a number of interesting outlier pets, including an iguana, a python, an African grey parrot, and a 130-pound turtle.

Animal law experts say the legal system has been slow to catch up to the change in how we view our animals. While people are increasingly attuned to the well-being of pets, most courts extend the same empathy for pets as they do for home appliances.

“In the eyes of the law, pets are property,” Rebecca Wisch, associate editor and staff attorney at Michigan State University’s Animal Legal & Historical Center, said. “The only thing separating them from toasters and bicycles is criminal cruelty law.”

Under the law, courts can treat pets like sentient beings with beating hearts and fragile emotions. Instead of being seen as property, they’re treated in a manner that hews closer to the way courts treat children.

In custody disputes and other legal actions, the court’s determination of a pet’s value often disappoints a pet owner. Unless your dog is a trained service animal or a purebred show dog, it might have no value in the eyes of a court.

“Let’s say someone hurts your dog through negligence,” Wisch said. “In court, the award of damages is going to be the market value of your dog.”

Attorney and CEO of the men’s divorce law firm Cordell & Cordell Scott Trout said that in heated divorce cases, emotional attachment easily outpaces market value.

I’ve had clients spend $15,000 to $20,000 arguing over an animal that they can repurchase for $4,000,” Trout said.

The Alaska and Illinois laws, per Wisch, are groundbreaking developments for animal rights. As a divorce attorney, Trout welcomed the Illinois and Alaska laws on pet custody. He said the current law is too nebulous and that family courts need clear guidelines about handling pets.

I’ve had a judge tell me we’re going to flip a coin and whoever wins the coin toss gets to pick the first piece of property,” Trout said. “That includes the animals.”  

Trout said that he hopes other states would soon follow Illinois and Alaska’s lead, as the problem of dividing up pets is only likely to grow.

“Look at the numbers,” Trout said. “The last time I checked, there were some 72 million households with pets. With a 50 percent divorce rate, that’s going to leave quite a few pets that people are going to argue about.”