“Custody” of Pets in Family Court

One of the many issues that the law is not very well suited to handle is the attachments we have to our pets. When relationships end up being defined by a court, the lines that are drawn regarding pets cannot be based upon the emotional state of the parties, or the unique family “culture” that households develop over time. This is illustrated by the statue of Lady Justice having a blind fold. She can’t see the expressions on people’s faces, or their body language, as she hands down the decisions that are required by the law. So, there are some things to be aware of when household pets are involved in a divorce or other legal division of a household.

  1. Animals are not subject to the notion of “custody” under the law. The statutes regarding divorce and custody maintain a very clear distinction between people and animals when it comes to the standards that apply to legal decisions. There is no “best interest of the pet” standard in the statute. Pets are essentially livestock, or property, in the eyes of the law. While there are some recent exceptions in other areas of the law, these statutes address the general humane treatment of animals separate from any family court proceeding (e.g. Minn. Stat. §347), and are not issues of “custody”. The family law statutes related to determining what is in the “best interests” of children simply are not applicable to the well-being of the pets.
  2. Like property, placement of pets will be based on the ownership/value of the pet to the parties. As property, the determination placement of an animal by Family Court will be based first upon ownership interests (is it joint, non-marital, or owned by one party?), and if ownership is joint, it will first be based on what the pet is worth (perhaps to each party) in view of the overall property distribution. The emotional attachment of the parties is only considered generally within the “discretionary” part of the court’s decision-making authority. When ownership is joint, and there are minor children, the court’s view of the children’s “best interests” may guide the court on where the pet should be placed.
  3. “Joint Custody” of Pets? Some courts (within their “discretion”) will have parties, with or without children, “share” time with a pet. While this requires parties to remain connected through this arrangement, and thus increase the risk of future continuing litigation, the court has the discretion to weight this against the benefit to each party or the children (not the pet) of continuing to share this “asset”.

Essentially, aside from the pure “property ownership” analysis, the family court is left with the equitable authority to consider what will best serve the future mental and emotional health of the parties or their children. The placement of a pet will be guided by this. There is no provision in the family court statutes in Minnesota to consider the “best interests” of the pet. In the same way as the court applies the domestic abuse statutes where the mistreatment of pets is a form of abuse toward children or other family members, the court would not have jurisdiction in a family case to consider the welfare of the animal.

For these reasons, those who find themselves headed for a family court proceeding would do best to reach an understanding regarding pets before a judge has to decide the issue. If you don’t, I am afraid you really won’t like the way court will be required to make the decision!