Pets And Visitation

 Child Custody Lawyer

For many years, divorcing couples have wanted to fight for “custody” of the family pet or pets; however, these couples were frustrated by the law. As a general rule, legislation in all states has historically considered pets as property, just like furniture and vehicles. Thus, since pets have been treated as property, courts have not had the authority or jurisdiction to establish custody and visitation as would be customarily done with children. If you are in the difficult situation of wanting “custody” of your pet, a good pet and child custody lawyer may be able to help you.

As explained by The Lasky Law Firm, over the years, there have been random judgments entered in various states wherein judges have made exceptions and awarded custody and visitation for family pets. Those judgments/orders remained in place primarily because they were not challenged. Those that were challenged did not prevail. For example, in 2002, a Pennsylvania Appellate Court set aside a “pet visitation judgment” because it ran afoul of the law. The appellate court held that it was, “analogous to having visitation with a table or lamp.” Again, pets have generally been considered as property in the eyes of the law.

Despite historical decisions like this one and despite the long-settled law regarding pets, couples have continued to fight over pets in divorce cases. As a result, the courts and legislatures have been listening. They have begun to understand that pets are more like children than property. In addition, pets are playing a larger and more important role in the lives of many people, adults and children alike. Most attorneys believe the law should be flexible and accommodate these changes.

For example, pets play a huge role for handicapped and injured adults and children, especially military veterans, such as those suffering from PTSD. Each and every day, service pets play a more important role in the every-day lives of more people. Pets assist handicapped persons in traveling and in handling certain medical emergencies. Pets are even used therapeutically at hospitals and clinics. They can play an important role in the lives of many adults and children.

Lastly, there are also everyday family pets who are simply loved and cared for, just like a child. This can be a pet in a childless or elderly family or possibly a family where the children are bonded to the pets. In sum, Courts are seeing that pets are important components of every household and therefore, should be treated as such, rather than being treated as property. The law has not been timely in responding to and addressing this issue.

Notwithstanding, there have been a few changes. Effective January 1, 2019, California passed Family Code 2605 which allows parties to petition the Court for custody and visitation of the family pet or pets. The Code refers to this as “Pet Animal Ownership,” and while the “property” aspect of pets has not disappeared altogether, the California Court will evaluate factors such as who cares for the pet, the family dynamics of the pet, etc. Even though this is an assignment of ownership, it still looks and feels much like the Court is considering the “best interest” of the pets just as the Court would consider the best interest of a child.

In 2021, the Wisconsin legislature considered a bill which would treat pets like children, allowing the court to establish visitation, support payments, and the like. Other states, such as Texas and Alaska, have dealt with pet issues in divorce as well.

Hopefully, one day, all fifty states will adopt legislation to address this very important and sensitive issue. Pets are a part of most households and whether they play a role in assisting a handicapped family member or they are simply a loving part of the family, they are an important component of the family dynamic. When a divorce tears a family apart, the impact on the pet and the pet’s impact on family members are important factors for the Court to consider, both for the pet and the family.

Divorcing couples can enter into “agreements” as part of the divorce with regard to family pets and how they will be handled after divorce; however, depending on the terms of the agreement and the state within which the agreement is drafted or interpreted, it is not clear how a court would enforce that agreement, if enforceable at all.

If this issue is important to you, make sure your legislator knows your position and support the adoption of this type of law.