By Staff Attorney
The Gasper Law Group, PLLC
(“Fagan” – Grand Champion Irish Red & White Setter of “Truly Red & Whites”)
Pets: Are they family members or property?
Surely there aren’t folks who would value their pets as much as say, their children? I mean, you wouldn’t think that when it came to a divorce, a pet would be the subject of bitter controversy, would you?
Those questions have become a matter of bitter contention in many divorce cases, and courts throughout the country find themselves addressing the matter. A tweet by @Parkerlawyer went viral last fall with the comment “Just settled a divorce over Parrot custody/visitation. Neither may teach it negative phrases about the other. I went to law school for this.”
In Alaska, the question was even picked up by the state legislature, with a recent bill that requires judges consider “the well-being of the animal” and gives them the power to award joint custody of pets. Since many states already make “the well-being of the child” paramount in child custody decisions, the Alaska law appears to come down on the “pets are more like kids than property” side of the question. Ask any pet owner. You talk about taking their long-time companion and “them’s fightin’ words”. Pets are no doubt “a part of the family” to those who care for them, raise them, buy billions of dollars worth of toys, blankets, leashes and collars and spend even more on their medical bills. One report on the pet industry states that Americans will spend upwards to 60 Billion dollars on their pets and number is thought to be growing. There’s even Luxury Doggie Resorts where your pet can be pampered and taken care of like royalty.
So, there is no doubt that the importance of pets to families and presumably to families that are breaking up is significant and it’s no surprise that the issue of “who gets Fido” may be highly contentious in today’s divorce.
But what about Colorado?
The Colorado legislature has not followed in Alaska’s footsteps. Under Colorado law, pets are still classified as “personal property,” rather than quasi-family members. As a result, a pet will be included in the estate’s property, and then treated according to the rules of equitable distribution for other personal property. In a pet’s case, this might mean the couple considers not only who houses the pet, but also related expenses (such as veterinary bills).
As with other divorce questions regarding property, a couple can negotiate a decision that fits with the law. The next hurdle is convincing the judge to agree.
Colorado judges vary in their willingness to handle pet custody and their approach. Some judges will work with couples seeking joint custody and consider the animal’s best interests. For instance, if the couple has an elderly cat who needs daily medication, the judge may award custody to the spouse who works from home. Other judges, however, will refuse to consider pet custody and may even recommend the spouses “re-home” the pet. Your lawyer can help you craft an approach that will take the judge’s track record on pet custody into account.