Animal Custody Issues

Pet Custody Disputes

Today, it is not uncommon for both married and unmarried couples to have joint ownership of a pet. It is also not uncommon for one or more people to share ownership of an animal for breeding, show, or other purposes. Sometimes pet owners give up temporary custody of their pet only to be faced with a caregiver who refuses to return the pet or their pet may even have been stolen by a third party. Law enforcement will often tell an aggrieved party that these matters are “civil.” Where the criminal justice system fails, there are civil remedies for pet owners faced with these situations.

Animals as Personal Property

Animal Custody Attorneys. Dog footprint in the snow

When multiple people claim rightful ownership of an animal, a court-based resolution can be complicated. In the case of a divorce, many pet owners wish to treat their pets much like children, asking for joint custody or visitation rights. Unfortunately, in the eyes of the law, pets are considered personal property. Therefore, the issue of animal custody must be handled as a property dispute; privileges like visitation and joint custody do not ordinarily apply like they would in the case of a child.

As property, the worth of a pet is considered to be its fair market value, or the price it could reasonably fetch if it were sold to a neutral buyer. This means that most commonly in divorces, the court will simply order a payment of the animal’s cash value instead of an actual change of custody. Some courts are becoming more open-minded and taking into consideration factors that can help them reach a determination about where a pet will live. In some states, courts have awarded shared custody or visitation rights after reviewing evidence and testimony provided by the pet’s owners and expert witnesses regarding what is in the pet’s best long term interest.

For unmarried couples who jointly own a pet, the process can be even more complicated without a domestic relations court to decide who keeps the family pet. Such situations may even result in a court-ordered “splitting” of the property with the pet being sold to the highest bidder.

Often pet owners come to agreements about visitation, joint custody, or joint ownership when their personal relationships are terminated. These agreements are like any other contract and an aggrieved party can seek court enforcement of such an agreement. Joint custody agreements should always be in writing to ensure that the parties’ wishes and obigations are clearly defined.

For pet owners who do not jointly own the pet, the process is much simpler. Sole owners who seek to have a pet returned to them can seek a court order requiring the wrongful possessor to return the pet.

Fighting for custody of your pet

As Ohio’s leading animal law firm, Holland & Muirden has developed a reputation for expertise in animal custody law. Despite the legal status of animals as property, we understand that your pets represent a unique and irreplaceable value to you. Our attorneys will use their knowledge of Ohio case law to strengthen your custody claim and fight to have your pet legally returned to you as quickly as possible.

Building your case

To convince a court of your right to custody, the following issues may be considered:

  • Who was the primary caregiver for the animal?
  • Where has the animal been housed, and for how long?
  • Who initially purchased or adopted the animal?
  • What expenses (food, veterinary care, grooming) were paid by each party?
  • If the animal underwent any special training that might add to its value, who did the training and/or paid for the training to take place?
  • Do you rely on the animal for therapeutic or disability assistance?
  • Who was responsible for giving the animal food, medicine, and exercise on a daily basis?
  • Are there any texts, emails, letters, or written communication that relate to the animal’s care or the origin of the dispute?
  • Was any issue of care or ownership addressed in a written or verbal contract?
  • Is there any documentation of pedigree, medical status, or special training that could be used in determining the animal’s fair market value?
  • If the animal was transferred or entrusted to a third party at any time, were you notified? Did you give consent? What were the terms of the arrangement?

Animal Custody Attorneys