In this month’s American Bar Association Journal, I read an article discussing attorney Mark Cushing’s book entitled “Pet Nation: The Inside Story of How Companion Animals Are Transforming Our Homes, Culture and Economy.” The subject of his book is the generational transformation of pets in America from sideshow to a central role in our culture and society. The article begins by stating that “Pets rule America these days, or at least they run the lives of the women and men who run America”.
Today most owners consider their pets as family members, but how pets are treated in a divorce may depend upon which state has jurisdiction of your case.
State legislatures are increasingly recognizing and addressing that pets are more than mere property. All 50 states now have felon laws against animal cruelty, and the majority of states provide for judges to include pets in domestic violence protection orders. Alaska then led the way in 2017 to be the initial state requiring judges in divorce cases to consider a pet’s “best interests”, which is a standard applied in child-custody cases.
A few other states have followed suit. The most recent convert is the state of New York. In 2021 New York enacted a new law which requires courts to consider the best interests of a pet or companion animal during a divorce proceeding when awarding possession (custody) of it. The law is meant to assist the courts in adjudicating the approach for awarding possession of the companion animal. The lawmakers’ intent is for the courts to ensure that animals will be properly cared for after a divorce. Therefore, just as in the case of minor children, such laws ensure that the best interests of pets are taken into consideration during divorce or separation proceedings.
In Michigan, in divorce and/or separation proceedings pets are still considered to be personal property, and therefore possession best interest laws do not mandatorily apply to them. Michigan courts include pets in the equitable division of marital property. Rather than specifically considering the best interests of a pet, a judge may consider the value of a pet. In any equitable division of marital property the court will generally consider circumstances that factor into a fair distribution of property. A court may also consider whether a pet is considered separate, as opposed to marital, property. Nevertheless, the laws for pets are intended for the benefit of the owner(s).
In a divorce situation, the parties are always encouraged to achieve an amicable resolution of all issues, including the care and possession of a pet. This includes time spent with a pet, as well as the attendant costs of a pet. Also, in a divorce wherein there are minor child(ren), a couple may wish to consider how pet possession will affect a child’s well-being.
While certain states believe that their current law is already capable of equitably adjudicating pet issues, it is probable that a change in divorce law to the “best interest” standard for pets will eventually have application in Michigan and various other states. In the interim, attorneys and judges need to always be creative and considerate so as to benefit all concerned.
Property division in divorce in Michigan, and elsewhere, is complex. A divorcing party with any meaningful property needs an experienced and knowledgeable advocate. Should you, a family member or friend be in a position of contemplating and/or defending a divorce, one will need an energetic, expert and experienced law firm such as Berry Moorman. Berry Moorman is a firm with expertise in a wide-variety of legal practice areas that complement one another and provide the ability to protect your personal and/or business assets. Our team excels at developing strategies to protect you and your family, whatever the issue.