Fox Family Lawyers
Cynthia Moseley Fox
Attorney at Law
7751 Carondelet Avenue,
Suite 700
Clayton, Missouri 63105
(St. Louis)

The Courts View Pets As Property Not People in Divorce Battles

The Riverfront Times, in its April 10th edition, ran an article extensively recounting the tribulations of the Vinson v Vinson divorce trial held over several days in February in the St. Louis County. The protagonists were Ray and Deanna Vinson of American Home Equity Mortgage. Depending on whom you believe, one or both were the founders of what became a very successful mortgage brokerage, while Ray, all parties concede, was the sole owner of the twangy voice heard on its commercials.


By all accounts, this has been the mother of all divorce battles, with $2 million spent on attorneys and close to another $3 million laid out for private detectives, according to the Riverfront Times. They have battled over everything, even custody of “Bogey”, their spaniel.


Much has already been written in this space about the value of keeping divorce proceedings constructive so, instead, let’s tread new ground and focus on pet custody vis à vis divorce.


Although many pet owners view their beloved Fido as a family member, in my experience, I have encountered few really contentious disagreements over who will retain physical custody of the family pet. In most cases, one spouse is usually the pet’s primary caregiver and the parties quickly agree that person will retain custody. And, where there are children, the pet often remains with the parent who has the kids more of the time.


But, divorce being what is, there have been cantankerous exceptions. For those inclined to fight over who gets the family cat, dog or parakeet, they need to know that the court views pets not as people, but strictly as property to be allocated equitably among the parties along with the furniture. However, if one party can prove that the contested canine is their exclusive property, it will be awarded to its sole owner.


In the Vinson case, Deanna Vinson conceded on the stand, according to the RFT article, that she had purchased Bogey as a gift to Ray and the judge subsequently ordered her to turn the dog over to him. After initially refusing, the Times reported that Deanna finally relented after being cited for contempt of court.


Judges will be responsive to evidence showing one spouse to be the primary caregiver, or information suggesting one party will be more caring than the other. I was involved in a case where both husband and wife insisted upon custody of their poodle until, at trial, the wife (my client) produced frozen samples of regurgitated food that the husband had knowingly fed to the dog that the vet had told him not to feed the poodle. The husband subsequently withdrew his claim.


Sometimes, the two simply will not give in, both testifying to their undying devotion to the family pooch. Faced with no clear choice, judges have one other option that often lubricates a reasoned outcome. Like any disputed property, the judge can order it sold with the proceeds divided between husband and wife. Confronted with a Solomon-like solution dividing the dog in two, monetarily, the real caretaker often becomes apparent, or one side relents.


Unfortunately, the fight over the dog becomes the vehicle for one or both parties to wreak their ill will on the other. Years ago, I represented a husband in a divorce where the couple had two dogs. His wife insisted on keeping at least one dog or both. Rather than separate the dogs, together for years, from each other and from their son, he gave up his claim. Within a week after the case ended, the wife had both dogs euthanized, claiming she was tired of caring for them.