While I’m no “pet lawyer,” I do own a 9-year-old Chihuahua and, along with other pet owners, have often looked up the laws affecting pets. For example, what happens in divorce to the family dog or cat? What if I want to return my pet to the seller? What happens to my pet upon my passing? Well, I’ve wondered this stuff too and decided to write about it. I know it’s off of my typical path, but we all encounter these everyday legal issues:
1. Buying a Pet: According to the American Veterinary Medicine Association, 21 states have so-called “pet lemon laws” that allow a buyer of a pet to return the pet to the seller for a full refund in the event that the pet has an illness or disease. These laws are time-sensitive and the buyer of a pet with an illness or disease must act quickly. For example, in Arizona, a buyer of a pet has 15 days to return the pet to the seller in the event that the pet has an illness or disease. The buyer has 60 days to return the pet in the event of congenital or hereditary disease (California’s time frame is one year). Upon returning the pet, under these laws the buyer is typically entitled to their purchase price plus any veterinary expenses.
2. Owning a Pet: There are a number of laws that govern the care you should extend to your pet. Again, these laws are at the state level and vary from state to state. One common law relating to pet ownership is that pets cannot be left in extreme weather conditions without food and shelter. Another common law found in many states restricts a pet owner from leaving their pet – typically dog – in a car unattended. These laws are designed to protect the pet, and failure to abide by them can be a crime.
3. Divorce and Death: I know, the D words. One is common and the other is certain, and if you own a pet, the law may determine your pet’s new owner in these situations.
Let’s address divorce first. By law, pets are personal property, like your furniture, guns or jewelry. Although there is typically much more meaningful attachment to our pets than to personal effects, the law treats them the same. As a result, in the event of divorce where the ownership of a pet is in dispute, the court will analyze certain factors to determine who should receive the pet. These factors are different from the factors a court will consider when determining custody of children, which generally is determined by considering the best interests of the child. In determining ownership of a pet following divorce, the court would look to who owned the pet. Was this pet owned by one person before the marriage? In this case, the person who owned the pet prior to marriage would get ownership of the pet upon divorce. What if the pet was bought by both parties during the marriage, or even before marriage. Then, the court will look at whose money supported the pet, who took care of the pet (e.g. who walked, cleaned, took to vet, etc.), and who spends the most time with the pet to determine the appropriate owner of the pet. If the pet is a family pet and if children are involved, it is likely that the “family pet” would go to the person who receives custody of the children.
The second situation where ownership of your pet may come into question is upon your death. We all want our pet to be loved and cared for after our passing. As a result, if you have a pet, consider listing in your will or trust a provision that states who shall receive the pet upon your passing and also consider gifting this person a lump sum of, let’s say, $5K to compensate them for caring for the pet. While you may create “pet trusts” and other extensive legal structures to outline the care of your pet, like the billionaire Leona Helmsley who left a $12 million dollar trust fund for her dog, such trusts and structures are not necessary to ensure the proper care and ownership of your pet upon your passing. Consequently, a simple statement in your will or trust as to who you want to receive your pet and a grant of a certain lump sum of money to be given to them from your estate to care for the pet is the proper solution for most of us.