Overview of Pet Visitation

pets in divorceAs one court recently noted, pets in our modern society are viewed more than mere items of property. For some individuals, pets are friends, coworkers, and defenders. A trusted family diligently guard’s the family’s children. A dedicated feline friend can help a lonely widow or widower overcome depression and feelings of isolation. For some individuals and couples, pets are treated in much the same way and regarded with the same feelings as children in other families. Is it any wonder, then, that when couples with pets divorce that fierce court battles can erupt over these furry companions? In two recent cases (one in New York and one in Illinois), courts were asked to abandon the traditional view of pets as property and instead treat them similar to the manner in which children are treated.

What the Pet Owners Wanted from the Courts

In each case, petitions for divorce were filed by couples with pets. By agreement or by circumstance, one of the parties ended up with primary custody and control over the pets. During the course of the marriage, the other party in each case had developed a strong emotional bond with the pet(s). When the party in control of the pets denied access to the animals, the other party filed a motion in court asking the court to order a set visitation schedule with the pet (in much the same way as a court would set a visitation schedule when a divorcing couple has one or more children).

The parties seeking “pet visitation” asked the court to adopt a new standard in determining what visitation orders were appropriate in the case and to enter such orders. The. More specifically, the New York party seeking pet visitation argued to the court that not only did the court possess inherent powers to award pet visitation, but that when doing so the court should enter orders that would serve the best interest of the animal (the party in the Illinois case argued for a “best interest of the parties” standard). In both the New York case and the Illinois case, though, courts found such a standard to be unworkable and declined to impose a pet visitation schedule.

Justification of the Ruling on Pet Visitation

dog visitation in divorceWhen a court is setting a visitation schedule and looking for what is in the best interest of the child, there are various facts and circumstances the court can examine in order to determine how the child in question is faring. While the physical appearance of the child can be an indicator that the child is not thriving under present circumstances, poor grades, a lack of participation in extracurricular activities, and comments made to peers (or teachers or therapists) can all shed light on whether the child is doing well in his or her present placement.

When it comes to animals, however, determining what is in the best interests of the animal is much more difficult. This is true for a couple of reasons:

  • First, an animal may be in poor health for reasons unrelated to its present living conditions. It is difficult to for a court to say that a change in “visitation” would positively affect the animal’s health.
  • Second, while courts are familiar with good parenting practices, courts in general are less familiar with good pet-raising practices. A court would have a hard time (in most cases) saying whether a person was acting in a responsible manner or not.

In the end, although you may be attached to your pet, courts appear unwilling to treat animals in any way other than as property. If you wish to have “pet visitation” during or after your divorce, this will be something that you and your spouse will need to agree to.

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