Who Gets “Custody” of Pets in a Michigan Divorce?
Divorce court judges are used to dealing with difficult child custody and property division cases. But sometimes, a divorcing couple can’t decide who gets custody of the family dog, and that battle ends up in court.
Take, for instance, the case of Mr. and the soon-to-be-ex Mrs. Smith. This childless couple decided to part ways, but one thing stood in the path of an otherwise amicable divorce: a 150 pound Irish wolfhound named Kearney. Each professed to love the dog with equal fervency. Mr. Smith even offered to pay Ms. Smith thousands of dollars if she would relinquish custody of Kearney.
But Ms. Smith would not budge. She insisted that Kearney was hers, and that in fact, Kearney had been a gift to her by her husband. She even offered proof – a birthday card from her husband on which he had written, “This puppy expresses my love for you.” It was signed by him, with two hearts under the signature.
Based upon this evidence, the judge was convinced, and he awarded custody of Kearney to Ms. Smith. Mr. Smith was inconsolable.
New California Pet Custody Law Goes into Effect
As a reaction to situations like this, in California new legislation was signed into law by (former) Governor Jerry Brown (himself the owner of two dogs). This law took effect Jan. 1 of this year in California. It outlines specific guidelines that judges should use to determine how “custody” of family pets is decided.
The new legislation allows a divorcing couple to petition the Court for custody of a pet. Under the law, judges are empowered to consider the care of the pet when determining sole or joint ownership. Judges may consider who generally walks the dog, grooms the cat, or takes the family hamster to veterinary appointments – and are directed to weigh those factors when considering custody.
Pets are Considered “Unique” Property in a Divorce
Devoted pet owners may not agree, but under the law, pets are not considered children. In fact, in most states (including Michigan) they are still considered property. However, California’s progressive new law recognizes the “unique nature” of the relationship between a pet and its owner, and has established special assessments that judges can use to determine “custody” of cats, dogs, and other pets in contested cases.
Some of the factors that the California law allows judges to consider in divorces with pets are:
- Who feeds the pet?
- Who adopted the pet?
- Who purchases food, toys and other pet supplies?
- Who takes the pet for walks?
- Who takes the pet to the vet?
- Who protects the pet?
- Who spends the most time with the pet?
- Have there been allegations of domestic abuse or abuse of the pet?
Other States May Adopt California’s Pet Custody Model
In 2014, the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers conducted a survey which showed a 22 percent increase in pet custody cases over the preceding five year period. While most states, including Michigan, still consider pets to be property to be divided in a divorce, two other states – Alaska and Illinois – have adopted statutes similar to California’ law. California’s statute, however, is the most comprehensive and specific, and at least a handful of other states are looking to California as a model for future pet custody laws.
Weighing in on New Pet Custody Law
The author of California’s pet custody statute was Democratic California State Assemblyman Bill Quirk. Quirk himself owns a 13-year-old Maltese Shih Tzu mix named Luna, and has stated that he wanted to write a law that would encourage judges to consider the pets’ best interests.
While his sentiments are laudable, the proposed legislation did meet with some opposition. Critics were concerned that the new law might give spouses just another issue to fight over, or another avenue to exact revenge upon one another. Even attorneys and family law specialists who applaud the new law are skeptical that it will make a significant difference in divorce cases, partially because the statute still resides in the property division section of the law rather than in the family code section.
Pet Custody Law in Michigan
At this point, Michigan does not have a “Pet Custody” law of its own on the books – and nothing similar to the new California law is currently proposed in the Michigan legislature. So, for now, pets are still considered “property” in a Michigan divorce.
As with any property division in a divorce, friendly negotiations between the spouses or their attorneys is always the fastest (and least expensive) way to settle dispute. But if an agreement cannot be reached about who gets “custody” of Spot or Fluffy it will have to go before the Judge, and she will decide.
If you are facing a divorce with “pet custody” issues, experienced divorce attorney – and pet lover – Starla Zehr can offer you skilled and aggressive representation to help do everything possible to try and ensure you do not lose “custody” of your beloved pet.