Must Love Dogs: The Legal Aspects of Pets and Divorce

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June 1, 2012

We often read in the news or hear stories around the watercooler about warring ex-spouses disputing everything from vehicles all the way down to the last IKEA lamp in the den. A New York man recently spent $60,000 in legal fees while embroiled in a very different sort of custody battle. The subject of his dispute? A beloved half-beagle, half-pug named Knuckles. In a justice system that has traditionally viewed animals as property, the dog affectionately known as Knux embodies a larger point about how owners view their furry friends: While spouses are typically reluctant to shell out $60,000 trying to win that IKEA lamp, many have no problem fighting to retain their beloved pet.

During a divorce, every piece of marital property can bring about discord between spouses. That couples spend ample amounts of energy engaged in a tug-of-war over their property might actually be for the best, considering a couple’s car does not care to which spouse it is awarded. Conversely, a custody battle implies a much more serious outcome with the involvement of living, breathing beings who have much more of a stake in the final decision. The law emphasizes the best interests of the children in all custody decisions, with the hope that separating spouses will treat custody disagreements with more delicacy than they would a property dispute.

So, where exactly does Knux fit into a divorce? When it comes to man’s best friend (and cats, birds, etc), the answer is far from clear. Pets often fall into a gray area of dissolution law. With pets considered “property” under Oregon law, the State’s statutes do not appear to grant the determination of pet custody any special consideration, which is a potentially troubling thought for the many Oregonians who see their animals as far more than a piece of property. During a contested child custody determination in Oregon, a judge relies on several important factors to determine the living arrangement most suited for the child’s best interests. There is no analogous law for a judge to call on when ruling on a contested pet custody case. While state law does not completely disregard the notion that animals are more than property, Oregon dissolution laws regard pets more akin to household items than as something eligible for intensive judicial evaluation.

What options do Oregonians have for protecting their four-legged friends? Some legal pundits suggest that the owner listed on the pet registration would have a “leg up” in a pet custody battle. This sort of mechanism would provide a pet owner a strong basis for arguing ownership. Ultimately, though, a judge may still decide for the other party. The best preventative measure to eliminate later pet heartache would be to draft a prenuptial agreement that explicitly lays out the parameters of pet ownership during the marriage and what will happen in case of a divorce. While it may seem an odd suggestion to some readers, for passionate pet-lovers statewide, this may be the only true legal remedy available to protect the pets you love.


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