Can Family Court Force Pet Custody on Unwilling Spouse?

By December 17, 2015Divorce, Pet Custody
legal pet custody divorce attorney st louis mo

Ryan Adams is a well-known and successful singer married to Mandy Moore, a once successful singer. Currently, Mandy has filed for divorce and seeks a variety of temporary orders until the divorce is finalized. We thought we would talk about one that has gathered a significant amount of coverage.

It seems that Moore and Adams have a houseful of pets – eight to be exact (six cats, two dogs). And apparently Moore is fed up with taking care of the pets herself. Moore has asked the court for two pet-related requests: support funds to cover the care of the pets and an order requiring Adams take half of the pets immediately.

Could a court do either of these things?

In Missouri, a temporary order of support is designed to maintain the status quo until the court has the chance to hear the evidence and issue a final judgment dissolving the marriage. Support can cover a wide range of financial obligations, including those that would cover pets. So, if the grooming, feeding and vet bills of eight pets was assumed during the marriage, and one party seems to be in charge of all of the pets, a court could award a temporary support order to that effect.

It seems a much harder question with regard to forcing pet care on an unwilling spouse. Pets, while we love them like family, are still considered property under the law. Pets acquired during the marriage are marital property and cannot be disposed or distributed until entry of a final judgment. But unlike non-living property, pets require constant care or they die, which in cold legal terms is the equivalent of destroying marital assets. Also, we have criminal statutes regarding animal neglect and animal abuse. So, the court has a legal duty not to put the pets in jeopardy with a neglectful owner. If an owner cannot or will not care for a pet, it would be wrong to put a pet with such an owner.

Assuming Moore really loves the pets, she should continue to care for them in whatever way possible, document the means of care and ask the court to compensate her for that care. Beyond that, what the court can do seems murky. The court does not want to create a situation where an animal will be harmed or abused or neglected. The most likely solution would be to get Adams on record as whether he wants to retain the pets presently and in the future. If he has no interest in them, and Moore only wants some of the pets, the court could then be in the position to allow Moore find suitable homes for the other pets or take them to the Humane Society.

Suppose Adams was responsible for the rising number of pets, but never really cared for them personally. Now, Moore does not want the pets. Again, because we are dealing with property, no one can be forced into pet ownership. When parties mutually do not want marital property, the court orders it sold. In this case, the court would just order the pets donated. However, let’s suppose we have a very valuable pet – a show horse or a pure bred Pekingese stud. In that case, the parties would insist on a sale rather than a donation, and the court would split the proceeds of the sale.

Many people read about these pet “custody” issues in divorce and become very upset because they love their pets and do not like to see pets treated poorly. To avoid these issues, couples should consider including pet ownership and care issues as part of a prenuptial or postnuptial agreement.

If you have questions about pets and divorce, contact us – we can help.