Doggone Divorce Court

Dog lovers will not be surprised to learn that custody of the family dog ​​is frequently a bone of contention in separation or divorce. However, they may be surprised to learn that Fido is considered personal property under state law, just like a piano or a favorite piece of jewelry. Many divorcing dog owners disagree with this law and want their dog to be treated like a child. Courts determine custody of a child based on what is in the “best interest” of the child. Judges (who may be dog lovers) are often torn between following the law, which treats the animal as an inanimate object, or giving in to the wishes of the parties.

Akers v. vendors, a 1944 Indiana court case, appears to be the first reported case involving a dispute over a dog in a divorce. John Akers filed a lawsuit to get his Boston bull terrier back from his ex-wife, Stella Sellers. The dog was not mentioned in the divorce decree, and Stella, who took the family home from her, ended up with the pet because she lived there. The court said that the dog belonged to Stella because John gave it to her during the marriage. This decision treated the dog like any other gift of personal property.

Sixteen years later, in 1960, in Ballas v. Bullets, a California appeals court declined to consider whether the Pekingese family was community property or separate property, an issue relevant if the dog was treated as personal property. He agreed with the trial court that Shirley Ballas should keep the animal because she was the one who took care of it. This is believed to be the first reported court decision in which a court considered the “best interests” of a pet when deciding who would get custody.

In Aringtonv. Arringtona 1981 Texas case, perhaps in response to Bulletsinsisted that the dogs are personal property (saying they are not to be confused with humans), but opined that although AC Arrington had agreed that his ex-wife should have custody of the dog, Bonnie Lou, there should be enough love in Bonnie’s heart Lou. to allow visits with AC What dog lover would not agree?

Not long after that, an Iowa appeals court in In re Marriage of Stewart, while agreeing that a dog is personal property, affirmed the trial court’s award of Georgetta, the family dog, to Jay Stewart. Regardless of the fact that Jay had originally given the animal to his wife, Joan, as a Christmas present, the court noted that Georgetta accompanied Jay to his office and spent a substantial part of the day with him.

In Dickson v. DicksonIn 1994, a Garland County, Arkansas court issued a consent decree ordering Mr. Dickson to pay $150 per month in dog support in a joint custody agreement that designated the former Mrs. Dickson as the primary custodian. of the animal. Subsequently, the parties stipulated a modification of the decree to grant the ex-wife sole custody of her, without her ex-husband having more responsibility for the expenses of the future care of the dog, since he no longer had an interest in the animal. .

In the case of In re Tevis-Bliech MarriageIn 1997, the Kansas appeals court upheld a trial court decision that it lacked jurisdiction to modify a divorce settlement that (by contract) gave Michael Bliech visits with Cartier, the family dog. This visit left untouched.

Although not a published court decision, Dr. Stanley Perkins, an anesthesiologist, and his wife Linda made headlines in San Diego County, California a few years ago when they got into a two-year dogfight over Gigi, a pointer greyhound. mix they had adopted from an animal shelter. Linda won custody of the dog through legal theater such as a canine bonding study prepared by an animal behaviorist and Gigi’s “A Day in the Life” video. What was unusual was not only the astronomical legal expenses incurred in the fight over Gigi, but the apparent willingness of the judge to listen to everything.

In a recent case in Alaska, the trial court tested a joint ownership agreement between the divorcing parties and their chocolate Labrador retriever, Coho. When that didn’t work, the court awarded Stephen Gough custody and Julie Juelf visitation. When that didn’t work, he awarded sole custody to Stephen, meaning Julie has no visitation rights, an arrangement the Alaska Supreme Court upheld in 2002 in Juelfs v. Gough.

Despite the above cases, most courts seem reluctant to issue animal custody orders. In Nuzzici v. NuzzciIn 1995, a Delaware divorce court refused to sign an order agreed to by the parties that included visitation with a golden retriever. The court stated that it did not believe it had the authority to enforce such an order if the parties later disagreed.

In Bennet v. bennettThat same year, a Florida appeals court refused to affirm a trial court order granting Kathryn Bennett visits with the parties’ dog, Roddy, every other weekend and every other Christmas. The appeals court said the lower court had no authority to award custody or visitation with personal property.

And in De Sanctis v. Pritchard, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, in 2003, upheld the trial court’s dismissal of a lawsuit asking the court to enforce a settlement agreement that provided for joint possession of Barney, a golden retriever-golden labrador retriever. mixed. The settlement agreement was deemed void to the extent that it attempted to provide visitation or joint custody with personal property.

Although custody of the family dog ​​in divorce cases may seem like a trivial issue to some, dog lovers take it very seriously. The Animal Legal Defense Fund has submitted amicus curiae written in some divorce cases, suggesting that the judge consider the best interest of the companion animal. Public and legal interest in “animal rights” is growing. There are reportedly 42 law schools offering courses on animal law and at least two law journals devoted to animal law, with others publishing articles on the subject.

Despite objections that court files are already overloaded with ongoing disputes over custody, visitation and child support, we may be headed toward the day when dogs are entitled to their day in court. of divorce.

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