Once a marriage ends, the law is fairly clear about how to divide property, and factors to examine how to determine custody of children – but now on the rise is a movement to create legal status for our beloved pets.
There are three main means of determining pet ownership at the time of divorce: property, custody, and a hybrid approach. Alaska is the first, and so far only state to give its courts power to grant custody of a pet in line with the best interests of the pet. (This is the same standard that Maryland uses for determining custody of children.) Although, other state courts, such as in Alabama and Connecticut, have simply applied the ‘best interests’ standard when determining pet ownership, without the passage of a statute.
The majority approach views pets as property, in which case title generally controls. This approach makes sense in theory, however, it completely ignores the emotional relationship between pet and owner.
The hybrid approach clarifies pets as a special type of property, and may even use a standard that takes into account the ‘best interests of all’ involved living beings (which could include the pet, owners, and children, if any). It appears that Maryland’s approach will be along these lines.
Maryland has not yet passed a law with respect to pets and divorce or annulment; however, the General Assembly is working to include pets in the existing property distribution statute. As the bill stands now, it would allow a court, during an annulment or divorce proceeding, to determine pet ownership, transfer ownership interest between parties, and award either party with access rights to the pet. (See House Bill 749).
Although Maryland is including pets in its property division statutes, it is clarifying that pets are a special kind of property. For example, the General Assembly is including pets as part of its definition of “family use personal property” which also includes cars and household appliances. “Family use personal property” terminates after three years, meaning that the other party’s interest in the item must be bought out, or the item must be sold and the proceeds divided, etc. The General Assembly has carved out an exception for pets in this instance, in that pets are not subject to the three-year limitation. Therefore, any determination made about the ownership and/or access schedule for pets is intended to remain in place for the remainder of the pet’s life.
In 2014, the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers noted a 27% increase in attorneys reporting couples fighting over pet custody during the previous five years across the country. With this rise in pets in family disputes, it may be the right time for state legislatures to advise courts on how to address the emotional bond between pets and their humans, in the event that the humans cannot agree.