We are finishing up our discussion of a family law case from outside of Minnesota. The situation we have been looking at involves a dispute over custody of a dog. The court gave the dog to the husband, loosely referencing the "best interest of the child" standard. The judge had told the couple that shared custody would not be possible, that no court would enforce such an agreement.
Our question was, why? And, moreover, why bother to ask the court for help at all?
The answer to the first question is that the family laws regarding custody apply to children, not pets. This is true in Minnesota, in Vermont (where this case was heard) and in every other state. The idea of "pet custody" isn't known to the justice system, because pets are property. The hearing the couple attended was to determine who would be awarded that disputed piece of property, the dog, not who would have "custody."
On appeal, the wife argued that the dog was not just property, she was "special property." The Vermont Supreme Court didn't agree. The dog is subject to the property division statute, and that means the court's decision is final and cannot be modified.
That brings us to the second question. The answer, perhaps, is that there is really no advantage to involving the court in a pet custody dispute. Couples may want to work out an arrangement through mediation if they cannot agree on their own.
By law, a property division decision cannot be modified. The wife lost her appeal to the Vermont Supreme Court, and it looks as if she is now out of options. It is unlikely that the U.S. Supreme Court would accept the case, because family law is generally a state matter. So, if she wants to visit the dog, she will have to negotiate a nonbinding agreement with her ex-husband.
Source: Seven Days, "Pet Custody Can Dog Vermont Divorces," Ken Picard, June 25, 2014