Pets as property?

Board Certified Family Law Specialist Matt Arnold answers the question: “How will the judge divide our property?”


A recent divorce case in Canada dealt with the thorny issue of what to do with a pet after a divorce. The couple in question had three dogs and the wife had asked that she be given custody of all the pets, but requested that the judge grant visitation for 1.5 hours each week to her ex-husband. Though this might seem like a fair compromise, the judge presiding over the case took the opportunity to clearly lay out why he believes courts have no business intervening in such matters.



The judge in the case wrote a 15-page decision on the subject, explaining that while he viewed dogs as “wonderful creatures” who are highly intelligent, sensitive and faithful companion, they are, at the end of the day, just a dog. Though we may love the dog and treat it as a member of the family, according to the judge, the dog is in fact property, not a person.


Given it’s status as an item of personal property, time with the property cannot be divided in the same way that it is with children. The judge even used an analogy to show why this is so. Comparing the dog to a butter knife, the judge said anyone would agree it is ridiculous to grant custody to one party of a set of butter knives, while allowing the other party access to the knives for 1.5 hours each week.


Though many people might take offense to the comparison of a family pet to a butter knife, in the eyes of the law the two are indistinguishable. Canadian law mirrors that of most American states when it comes to pets. At least in a courtroom, pets are exclusively viewed as items of property to be divided among the parties. That means that your dog and cat are equivalent to a couch or a microwave and judges will likely treat them as such. In fact, only one state, Alaska, has laws on the books that allow judges to consider a pet’s best interest when determining who should receive the animal in a divorce. In all other states, such best interest tests are reserved for humans.


Though the law may seem clear that animals are property, there’s one area of inconsistency that has given some groups hope that things may change down the road. What’s that inconsistency? Animal cruelty laws. All 50 states have passed laws that make it felony to commits acts of animal cruelty. In some states, punishment can result in 10 years in prison or $125,000 in fines.


What’s legally significant about this is that while harm done to animals can result in a felony conviction, no such laws exist when it comes to your couch or your microwave. You can beat your microwave with a baseball bat or light your couch on fire and no one could say or do anything about it. This difference demonstrates that the law is willing to treat animals differently than other types of property, at least some of the time.


The question becomes whether, in the future, the law begins to change in the context of a divorce. As our pets play a more central role in our lives, it’s possible that the laws could change to reflect this new reality. The animal cruelty laws may be the way that those looking for change need to finally convince a judge that pets should be treated more like people and less like butter knives.


If you find yourself facing a complicated family law matter, then you need the help of experienced family-law attorneys in Charlotte, North Carolina who can help guide you through the often confusing process of divorce. Please contact Arnold & Smith, PLLC today at (704) 370-2828 or find additional resources here.


About the Author

ARNOLD & SMITH LAWMatthew Arnold is a Managing Member of Arnold & Smith, PLLC, where he focuses on the areas of family law, divorce, child custody, child support, alimony and equitable distribution.

Mr. Arnold was raised in Charlotte, where he graduated from Providence Senior High School. He attended Belmont Abbey College, where he graduated cum laude, before attending law school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on a full academic scholarship.

A certified Family-Law Specialist, Mr. Arnold is admitted to practice in all state and administrative courts in North Carolina, before the United States District Court for the Western District of North Carolina, and before the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia.

In his free time, Mr. Arnold enjoys golfing and spending time with his wife and three children.





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