There are many young couples who divorce without children. These cases generally proceed through the Rhode Island Family Court fairly quickly and uneventful. This is not surprising. Children can cause controversy in many divorce hearings. In those cases, disagreements over custody, visitation and child support are commonplace. But the new norm in many divorce cases without children involves the battle over “Rover” the beloved family pet. In the last six months I have had two cases dealing with this precise issue. Being a devout dog lover myself and the happy owner of 3 hounds, I could relate to the emotional turmoil and anxiety that the litigants were experiencing about the possibility that one would be separated from their best friend. It used to be that some Family Court Judges in Rhode Island scoffed at the notion that a divorce could somehow be contested because of a dog. I recall vividly, about 25 years ago, a Judge telling me that “ the Family Court is not an animal control officer and if the parties don’t reach an agreement the dog can go to the pound .” This Judge was probably bitten by some dog as a small child. Not surprisingly, his comments brought tears to my client. The good news for animal lovers is that this Judge is now retired and not sitting on the bench and that my client ultimately resolved her dispute with her husband and kept her poodle.
There are no specific statutes and or cases in Rhode Island dealing with the division or assignment of an animal in a divorce proceedings. However, battles over so called “custody” of the family pet have made their way to the supreme courts of many other states. While courts recognize the emotional attachment that couples have with their animals, they are constrained by most divorce statutes to treat the beloved “Rover” as a piece of property and nothing more. Typically property in a divorce is assigned outright to a particular spouse and once the assignment is made it becomes final and not subject to change. A recent case from the Vermont Supreme Court determined that the family court had authority to award the parties dog to one spouse but lacked any authority to award visitation to the other. The Court reasoned that once the dog was assigned to one spouse (in that case the husband) all issues regarding the “property” were extinguished. I suspect that if this issue were litigated in the Rhode Island that the result would be similar.
In my opinion, there are ways for parties to negotiate an equitable arrangement for visitation and contact with an animal which general divorce laws might not allow. Under Rhode Island divorce law, the parties are able to enter into a written contract which provides relief that might not be otherwise available. A detailed written marital settlement agreement providing for visitation and access to the family pet can resolve the uncertainty and often unpleasant outcome when the Judge is forced to decide who gets the dog.
Christopher M. Lefebvre Pawtucket Rhode island 4/20/2016