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Who Gets the Pet? What pet owners need to understand about pet custody, pet visitation and petimony
Posted in Litigation

In the United States, Americans spend over $50 billion on their pets each year and often have a strong emotional attachment to them. When a relationship dissolves through divorce, separation or ending a domestic partnership, many struggle with making pet arrangement decisions. Whether the pet is the family cat or a show dog, pet custody issues arise and must be addressed.

Courts in different states vary in addressing pet custody issues

Many people have become aware of pet custody disputes by way of the high profile stories often seen in the media. Even with such high visibility, no state has actually enacted legislation to award a person pet custody. This lack of legislation is mostly attributed to many state court opinions stating that pets are personal property, as is a lamp or table, and do not require the court to enforce visitation or custody.  However, there is a growing trend among states to enact laws that support the idea that pets are more than mere personal property. Two examples of such laws include anti-cruelty laws, currently enacted in all 50 states, and domestic abuse protections, enacted in at least 19 states. These two types of law provide pets with protections that, if violated and the penalty warrants such punishment, can result in jail time. When courts hear pet custody issues, the disputes generally fall within three categories: the best interest of the animal, visitation and petimony. These approaches are considered when courts view pets as something more than the owner’s mere personal property. Ironically, the vocabulary used is very similar to terminology associated with child custody disputes.

Best interest of the animal: In determining the best interest of the animal, courts consider several issues such as whether children care for and are attached to the pet, whether one of the owners travels substantially without the pet, and whether one of the owners has an anger issue that could hinder his or her ability to properly care for the pet.

Visitation: In order to determine visitation rights, owners must present evidence to show they want supervised or unsupervised visitation. Factors that courts have focused on to determine visitation rights include whether the pet is familiar with the environment, whether the pet interacts in a healthy manner with other pets or children, and whether there are any space limitations at the residence.

Petimony: One owner may seek financial support from the other for pet related expenses. This support is called petimony. Petimony payments have covered special diets, veterinary care and grooming costs.

Indiana’s perspective: Pets are personal property

Indiana courts currently view pets as the owners’ personal property. Therefore, it generally divides ownership of pets between the two people as it does for other property they own. If one owner believes a pet is wrongfully taken by the other person, Indiana courts would consider the fair market value and not the sentimental value of the animal. An Indiana court is not likely to hear testimony addressing pet visitation, pet custody and petimony issues, as it would not do for any other inanimate object, such as a table. Indiana residents should attempt to resolve pet disputes contractually or in agreements rather than through court hearings.

Strategies for establishing pet ownership and rights in Indiana

There are several things an individual can do in Indiana to argue the pet rightfully belongs with the individual after a breakup. The most successful individuals attempt to show pet ownership by providing proof that he or she is voluntarily responsible for the pet. Some factors pet owners use to establish this responsibility include:

  1. records of paying for some of the following: veterinary care, registration costs to the city, insurance premiums, installing an identification chip, and boarding fees;
  2. demonstrating proof that they were responsible for arranging veterinary visits;
  3. providing evidence that they were responsible for leading the adoption process;
  4. and demonstrating a bond with the pet.

Post-relationship pet ownership issues can be legally complicated and emotionally difficult. For more information and counsel, please contact Jim Reed at Bingham Greenebaum Doll.

  • Partner

    Jim Reed has concentrated his practice in the legal aspect of relationship transitions of all types since graduating from law school. He has been involved in divorce cases with some of the largest marital estates in Indiana. He ...

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