In some cases, the divorcing couple can come up with an arrangement. But what if they cannot? What if they need to take the issue to court? Indiana views pets as chattel or personal property. Whichever spouse is ordered the canine, will have sole possession to the complete exclusion of the other. While this may seem like a harsh and unfeeling outcome, Indiana Courts have determined that it is the only one that makes sense as pet custody cases would be an additional drain of judicial resources and untenable to the Courts.
If pets are property, who gets the pet?
The courts will take several factors into consideration when making their determination. The Court can consider who researched and found the dog, who was involved in obtaining the dog for the family, including any interview process and vetting. The Court can also consider who agreed to any contractual provisions for the animal, including if a dog had to be re-homed for any reason. Who entered into any contracts regarding the animal. Whose information is contained on any microchip. These types of considerations will be evaluated when both spouses are physically able to care for the animal after divorce.
If one party gets the pet, the court will consider its value the same way as other property, like a car or piece of art. This may mean one party has to shift assets to the other to help ensure a fair split.
How does this work?
In a recent example, a family purchased a special breed of dog that cost well over a thousand dollars. In addition to the high price tag, the purchaser had to go through an interview process and agree to return the dog to the breeder if they ever needed to rehome the pet. Considering these factors, the court agreed to give the dog a value similar to the purchase price. The court then considered this price with the rest of the divorcing couple’s assets, ultimately awarding ownership of the dog to the wife. In exchange, the wife had to compensate the husband an additional amount to ensure a fair split of assets.
What if the couple does not agree?
In this case, the husband tried to get around the arrangement by arguing the children could bring the dog with them when they came to his home, much in the same way they would an iPad or other personal possession. The wife disagreed, and the matter went back to court.
Upon review, the court noted that it is inundated with child custody disputes and the possibility of also having pet custody disputes to further drain judicial resources was not in the public’s interest. This explanation further supports the current view of pets as property.
The court then reviewed the arguments and provided a decision that answered two main questions:
- Who owns the dog?
- Can the children bring the dog back and forth?
Regarding ownership of the dog in this case, the appellate court supported the trial court’s decision to award ownership to the wife, rather than some co-ownership arrangement.
Then, diving into the father’s argument that the dog could change households with the children, the court looked at Indiana child support guidelines and noted that they allow children to bring certain items between households. These can include clothing and electronic devices. To qualify, the parent generally purchases these items for the child with funds from child support payments. This was not the case with the dog in question.
Since the law does not allow children to make decisions about transporting the parent’s personal property, the appellate court ruled in favor of the wife, stating she was not required to allow the dog to move back and forth between households.
What does this mean for my case?
Those who are in similar situations can learn from how the court applied the facts in the case above. If you want the ability for the dog to travel to households with the children or another shared pet arrangement if you do not have minor children, it is important to get that stipulation included within the divorce settlement agreement rather than ask the Court to decide the issue. It is also important to agree upon how costs will be paid for the animal and what happens if one party decides they no longer want to or are not able to care for the animal or share time/custody of the animal. Otherwise, absent agreement between the parties, Indiana Courts will determine one or the other spouse will have permanent possession of the animal to the exclusion of the other.