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Doggone Divorce Court
Dog lovers will not be surprised to learn that custody of the family dog is often 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 themselves) are often torn between enforcing the law, which treats the animal as an inanimate object, or giving in to the wishes of the parties.
Akers v. Sellers, 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 from his ex-wife, Stella Sellers. The dog was not mentioned in the divorce decree and Stella, who kept the family home, ended up with the pet because she lived there. The court said that the dog belonged to Stella, because Gjoni 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 against Ballas, a California appeals court declined to consider whether the family’s Pekingese was community property or separate property, an important issue in whether the dog was treated as personal property. She agreed with the court that Shirley Ballas should have the animal because she was the one taking care of it. This is believed to be the first reported court decision where a court looked at the “best interests” of an animal to decide who should get custody.
IN Arrington v. Arringtona 1981 Texas case, perhaps in response to Ballasinsisted that dogs are personal property (saying they shouldn’t be messed with people), but felt that even though AC Arrington had agreed to let his ex-wife have custody of the dog, Bonnie Lou, there must be plenty of love in his heart Bonnie Lou. to allow visitation with AC What dog lover would disagree?
Not long after that, an Iowa appeals court In The New 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. Despite the fact that Jay had originally given the pet to his wife, Joan, as a Christmas present, the court noted that Georgetta accompanied Jay to his office and spent a significant part of the day with him.
IN Dixon v. Dixon, in 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 animal’s primary caretaker. The parties later stipulated to a modification of the decree to award sole custody to the ex-wife, with her ex-husband no longer responsible for the costs of the dog’s future care, as he no longer had an interest in the animal.
In the case of In re The Tevis-Bliech Marriage, in 1997, the Kansas appeals court upheld a trial court ruling that it lacked jurisdiction to modify a divorce settlement agreement that (contractually) granted Michael Bliech visitation with Cartier, the family dog. This left the visit intact.
Although it was 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 engaged in a two-year dog fight over Gigi, a greyhound. mix they had adopted from an animal shelter. Linda won custody of the dog through such legal theatrics as a dog bonding study prepared by an animal behaviorist and Gigi’s “A Day in the Life” video. What was unusual was not just the astronomical legal fees incurred in the fight for Gigi, but the judge’s apparent willingness to hear them all.
In a recent case in Alaska, the trial court adjudicated a joint property agreement between the divorcing parties and their chocolate, Coho, Labrador. When that didn’t work, the court awarded custody to Stephen Gough and visitation to Julie Juelfs. When that didn’t work, she awarded sole custody to Stephen, meaning no visitation rights for Julie, an arrangement the Alaska Supreme Court upheld in 2002 in Juelfs v. Gough.
Despite the above cases, most courts seem reluctant to grant animal custody orders. IN Nuzzaci against Nuzzaci, in 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 Bennett v. Bennett, the same year, a Florida appeals court refused to affirm a court order granting Kathryn Bennett visitation with the parties’ dog, Roddy, every weekend and every other Christmas. The appeals court said the lower court had no authority to grant custody or visitation of personal property.
And we DeSanctis v. Pritchard, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, in 2003, upheld the trial court’s dismissal of a complaint seeking the trial court’s enforcement of a settlement agreement providing for joint ownership of Barney, a mixed-breed golden labrador. The settlement agreement was held void to the extent it attempted to grant visitation or joint custody of personal property.
Although custody of the family dog in divorce cases may seem like a trivial matter to some, it is taken very seriously by dog lovers. The Animal Legal Protection Fund has filed amicus curiae summary 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 in animal law and at least two law journals devoted to animal law, with others carrying articles on the subject.
Despite objections that court dockets are already overloaded with ongoing disputes over custody, visitation, and child support, we may be heading toward the day when dogs get to have their day in divorce court.
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