Vermont Supreme Court Decides Dog Custody in Divorce

Vermont’s highest court of appeals took on an unusual case this week when it issued an opinion in a post-divorce custody dispute over the family dog.  Although dogs are typically considered to be marital property during divorce allocations, Vermont’s Supreme Court approached the situation in a manner more similar to the process used in awarding custody of children.

Vermont Couple Disputes Custody of Dog during Divorce

At issue in Hamet v Baker was the contested possession of the family dog after a divorce separation.  According to the court’s opinion, Belle the dog is an eleven-year-old German wirehaired pointer “who is greatly loved by husband and wife,” and was the only point of contention that the parties could not settle during negotiation.  The couple did not produce any children, and both parties felt like they deserved to keep the dog after the split.  During the divorce trial, the lower court informed both parties that, rather than treat Belle as regular marital property, the parties would appear at a custody-style hearing after which the judge would determine “which spouse was most active in caring for the dog during the marriage.”  The trial court also stated that there would be no visitation.

During the hearing, both husband and wife pled their case and explained the attachment each had to the dog.  The husband, a veterinarian, took Belle to work on a regular basis while the wife frequently took Belle on long walks through the surrounding woods that both enjoyed.  At conclusion of the hearing, the trial court said that either party would provide a good life for Belle, but gave the husband custody because of the regular routine of going to work with him that Belle had grown accustomed to.  The wife appealed the decision, arguing the court did not apply the appropriate factors in making its custody decision, and that it erred by not allowing the two to establish a joint custody visitation schedule.

Vermont Supreme Court Affirms Best Interest of the Dog Standard

The Vermont Supreme Court affirmed the lower court’s custody decision and process, explaining that treating a dog differently than other marital property was justified.  The court wrote of the situation:

“Pets are different from other property. They are alive and form emotional attachments with their owners that run in both directions. Their long and intimate association with people gives rise to special concerns for their well-being and humane treatment…  In considering pets as a special category of property, we have previously announced common law rules to govern issues of ownership. In the case of lost pets, for example, we have held that "the finder of a lost pet [who] makes a reasonable effort to locate its owner, and responsibly cares for the animal over a reasonably extensive period of time," may acquire title which is superior to that of the original owner… The finder of a lost ring has no such rights.”

After establishing the unique treatment of pets when compared to other items typically considered to be property, the Court went on to explain that a family court is “not limited to considering” the standard factors used in property division, including, “the welfare of the animal and the emotional connection between the animal and each spouse.”  To this point, the Court elaborated:

“These factors underlie our animal welfare laws and our case law, which recognizes the value of the bond between the animal and its owner… Evidence concerning welfare of the animal includes evidence about its daily routine, comfort, and care. Evidence concerning the emotional connection may include testimony about the role of the animal in the lives of the spouses.”

After establishing that decisions regarding custody of the family dog can concern the animal’s best interests and emotional attachments to its owners, the Court turned its decision to the case of Belle being awarded to the husband. 

Court Affirms Custody Decision of Family Dog

According to the Vermont Supreme Court, when ruling on Belle's case the trial court appropriately considered all the facts presented by each party and made a decision that was primarily driven by “its concern for the welfare of the animal.”  Finding for the husband, who had established a long-standing routine with Belle, was well within the family court’s authority.  Concluding, “The family court recognized how much the dog means to both parties. It is clear that her primary concern was the treatment of the dog. This was an appropriate factor upon which to base the decision. The court's specific findings about Belle and her owners are supported by the evidence,” the Vermont Supreme Court found that the dog's best interests were appropriately considered.

Finally, the decision noted that neither the family court nor the Supreme Court had authority to “impose an enforceable visitation order for the dog.”  In this matter, Belle was treated as typical marital property in that an order of her custody needed to be “final and not subject to modification” – something that an order allowing sharing of Belle would be unable to adhere to since joint custody requires constant modification. 

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