(860) 218-2122

Pets as Personal Property in the Connecticut Divorce

So many families in Hartford area consider their pets as family members.  I reside in a dog-friendly neighborhood west of the river where dogs are family.  In a recent divorce involving a couple from Suffield, CT, the center of their universe was the four dogs, one of which was a show dog.   Unfortunately, Connecticut Divorce Courts consider the family pooch or Whiskers the cat to be more aligned with a piece of furniture than a family member in a dissolution of marriage.  The common law word of “chattle” comes to mind when categorizing the pets.  Pet custody disputes are often very passionate and intense.  Connecticut courts categorize the pets as part of the “property distribution” in a divorce. For the first in the United States, an amendment to Alaska’s divorce statutes, which took effect at the beginning of 2017, is making waves in the world of Animal Law. This makes Alaska the first state in the country to require courts to take “into consideration the well-being of the animal” and to explicitly empower judges to assign joint custody of pets. In a blog post, the Animal Legal Defense Fund called the well-being provision “groundbreaking and unique.” “It is significant,” said David Favre, a Michigan State University law professor who specializes in animal law. “For the first time, a state has specifically said that a companion animal has visibility in a divorce proceeding beyond that of property — that the court may award custody on the basis of what is best for the dog, not the human owners.” The Alaska bill allows Courts to include pets in domestic violence protective orders and requires the owners of pets seized in cruelty or neglect cases to cover the cost of their shelter.  In Connecticut pets are property.  In my divorce mediation practice in Connecticut, I had numerous cases involving pet disputes, especially when families also have young children. Some parents argue that pets should stay or travel with the children. A recent family who divorced in West Hartford, Connecticut was agonizing about the family dog. One possibility was for the family dog to remain with whoever initiated the purchase of the dog.  Another possibility was for the dog to remain with whoever was their primary caretaker during the marriage. The continued expense of maintaining the dog became an issue as well.  The expense could be shared or should similarly remain with the same person. Often couples purchase pets with joint marital funds. However, rarely does “a soon to be divorced spouse” wants to be “bought out” of their share of the equity of the Whiskers, as it might happen with the marital home or the IRA account.  In Connecticut, we are not at a point in time where Connecticut Family Law considers our relationship with our pets, or, our children’s relationship with their pets sufficiently relevant to elevate their categorization from “property” to “custody.” Analogizing our relationships with our pets in the context of Property Law tends to be a poor fit for resolving ongoing disputes arising in a divorce or legal separation.  Time will tell if our relationships with our pet or the pet-child relationship will be deemed sufficiently important by  Connecticut Courts in the family law context to amend our laws.