In Michigan, as in most parts of the country, pets are considered “chattel” or property under the law. This legal concept dates back to times when animals and livestock were considered working animals and contributing to the income and value of their owner’s homestead. Today most animals kept as pets are beloved members of the family and cared for and treated as children. This can create difficult issues in divorce cases where you have two divorcing parties who are both seeking custody of the family pet.
Depending on the Judge, a dispute over the family dog may be summarily decided with the Judge treating the dog like any other piece of property split between the parties. If however the judge is an animal lover, the parties have a better chance of getting the Judge to take the time to find out who is the better person to receive custody. Just as in child custody disputes, the court can consider who would provide the best home for the pet. Who has the strongest emotional bond with the pet? Who has the time and money to spend on the pet? Who takes it to the vet? Who has the most stable, pet friendly environment? If children are involved, often a court will base its decision on who gets custody of the children. If the children have a close bond with the family pet, it will be in their best interest to keep the pet with them rather than have them suffer an additional loss during the divorce.
In my practice, I have not yet had a divorce case go to trial over custody of a pet. I have had cases where we have spent considerable time and effort drafting a divorce judgment that included specific provisions dividing custody of the pet(s) between the parties. In one case involving two dogs, the parties disagreed throughout the divorce process but finally worked out a schedule of joint custody where the dogs would stay together but split their time between the parties. This schedule worked for them for a few years, until the former husband moved into a place he could not bring the dogs. He and his ex wife worked out a solution where he continued to have visitation days during the weekend when he would pick up the dogs and take them to the park or to his parents house for the day. Just as with child custody cases, the best outcomes arise then the parties can put the needs of the pet (or the child) ahead of their own.