Contempt for Failure to Pay Dogimony?

legal pet custody divorce attorney st louis mo

We happened upon this rather interesting case out of New York, and thought we would share it and how it might play out in Missouri.

Sara and Josh separated in 2012 after six years of marriage. The couple had an English bulldog named Lola. Josh apparently had no trouble parting with Lola; but Sara wanted assistance in caring for Lola, who apparently had a high maintenance lifestyle (the couple lived in Manhattan). Josh agreed to pay Sara $200 per month in dogimony.

For those of you who think that $2,400 per year might be excessive for a dog, take note that standard pet insurance programs that cover twice yearly exams run $40 or more per month, and do not include the cost of any procedures or vaccines, and that something as innocent as a tooth extraction can run several hundred dollars. Also, dog groomers charge anywhere from $40 to $100 per visit depending upon the size of the dog and the degree of upkeep demanded. And we have not even addressed food or treats. As you can see, dogs can be expensive.

Well, it turns out that Josh failed to keep his obligation over a period of five plus years. In that time, Sara had incurred $18,000 for food alone (that is more than $300 per month in food…Lola must eat well or have dietary restrictions), $12,000 in upkeep and $2,335 in health costs. So, Sara has filed a motion for contempt, seeking all the unpaid dogimony and attorney fees.

Perhaps your first question is this: Is that agreement enforceable? It certainly seems to be in New York. How would this play out in Missouri?

Nothing in our divorce statutes addresses dogimony because we do not treat pets as children, but rather as property. But the fact that a court can only award one party property of the dog or compensation in dollar form for loss of the dog does not mean that the parties cannot agree to something more. In fact, every day in family court parties submit settlement agreements that include provisions that a court by itself could not order but that parties can bind themselves to by contract, with the only requirement for the court to determine being whether the agreement is unconscionable. So, if one party agrees to pay the other party a certain sum of money a month for care of the dog, a court easily could find that a reasonable term and enforce it against that party in the event that party fails to pay.

So dogimony by consent in Missouri could be a “thing” a court could enforce.

Does the contemnor have any recourse? Yes – if that party has failed to pay due to circumstances beyond that party’s control that make the failure not intentional, a court could find that party not in contempt. A good example: the obligor became disabled and could no longer work, so the ability to pay envisioned by the agreement is no longer reasonable.

If you have questions about dogimony or other pet issues and divorce, contact us – we can help.