Divorcing couples may expect a fight over who gets the car, the house, or custody of the kids–but do they expect a fight over Fido?
With more and more Americans viewing their fluffy friends as family members, it should come as no surprise that their squabbles over who gets to keep the cat are ending up in family court. But family law courts don’t always see animals the way that their owners see them. Pet owners must understand how the courts view animal custody, and learn how they can prepare themselves for a dispute.
The Current State of the Law
In many states across the country, including Florida, animals in divorce cases are seen as objects. Like toasters, silverware, and other inanimate objects, deciding who gets to keep a pet is seen as a matter of distributing personal property, not one of determining custody and visitation rights.
This view, which could potentially be traced to the days when animals were means of production and not companions, was cemented by the 1995 Florida case Bennett v. Bennett. When the couple divorced, they found themselves with one major problem: who would get custody of the family dog, Roddy. The trial court set a visitation schedule that elicited yet more legal wrangling between the parties. The case eventually wound its way to the appellate court, who dealt with the issue in just a few paragraphs. “While a dog may be considered by many to be a member of the family,” the court said, “under Florida law, animals are considered to be personal property.” It went on to hold that the trial court had “no authority” to grant visitation rights for personal property, and concluded that “Our courts are overwhelmed with the supervision of custody, visitation, and support matters related to the protection of our children. We cannot undertake the same responsibility as to animals.”
What to Do if You’re Concerned About Pet Custody
Despite the precedent set by Bennett, some courts are starting to acknowledge that a person’s relationship with their beloved pet is more complicated than their relationship with their vacuum cleaner. Pet owners who are concerned about what will happen to their animal when they divorce now have a chance of convincing a judge to order custody.
If you’re involved in an animal custody dispute, think first about who bought or adopted your pet. Because courts have traditionally seen animals as personal property, they may be more likely to award custody to the animal’s purchaser.
Regardless of whether you bought or adopted the pet, you should be prepared to show the judge that you are its primary caregiver and that it is in the animal’s best interests to remain in your custody. Gather evidence that you are the one who exercises the pet, feeds it, takes it to the vet and pays the bills for its care. Ask friends and neighbors for affidavits that demonstrate the animal’s bond to you. If your pet has ever shown signs of distress when you’ve been away from it for a significant time, present that evidence in court as well.
Finally, make it clear to the court that your concern is for the animal, and not for revenge. A judge will not look kindly on a person who never showed any interest in the family dog until they realized how much losing the animal would hurt their soon-to-be-ex spouse.
Talk to a Tampa Bay Family Law Attorney
If you’re going through a divorce or separation and are worried about what could happen to your animals, contact a Tampa family law attorney. Pet custody is a new and uncharted area of the law, but an attorney will be in the best position to understand the developments and present your case. Contact our Experienced Attorneys & Counselors at Law since 1997 Serving all of Tampa Bay. Call 813-672-1900 now for a free initial consultation www.familymaritallaw.com.
By Lynette Silon-Laguna Google