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Finding Buddy: Courts puzzle over pet custody in divorce p3

We are finishing up our discussion of a Vermont divorce case. As we explained in our last post, the decisions of other states' Supreme Courts may provide guidance to Tennessee's courts. The decisions may not be binding, but they can help our courts to frame a ruling.

In this case, the couple was going through a divorce. The husband wanted to decide one way or another, but the wife wanted a shared visitation arrangement. The trial court looked at a couple of basic elements of each spouse's relationship with the dog and, ultimately, gave the dog to the husband. The wife appealed.

She argued, in part, that the judge's reasoning -- the idea that treating a dog like a dog is superior to treating a dog like a child -- was faulty. A pet may be property, the wife said, but it is "special property."

The case the wife relied on was not a divorce case. The plaintiffs in that case sought damages after their neighbor shot and killed their dog. The Vermont Supreme Court determined that the dog's value derived from its "relationship to its human companions." The court added that "the emotionless economic calculus of property law may not fully compensate a mourning pet owner." The couple's dog was "special property."

According to the Supreme Court, in a divorce case, the fact that a pet is "special property" is not enough to overcome the fact that it is property, and, in a divorce, property must go to one spouse or the other if it cannot be equitably divided. The court did not go so far as to make a new rule, though, that would guide the state's courts in future decisions. Why? Because that is not the job of the courts -- it is the job of the legislature, according to the opinion.

The state legislature has included child custody guidelines in the statutes but has yet to address pet custody. If the legislature wants to make a "bright-line rule," it must act on its own. This is not a matter for the courts, and the courts should really try to stay out of it.

If there is a lesson in this for pet owners in Tennessee, it is that there are some things that are best decided outside of court.

Source: Seven Days, "Pet Custody Can Dog Vermont Divorces," Ken Picard, June 25, 2014

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