I once owned a pit bull named Jackson. He went down a bad path. He was a product of public obedience school. I was too busy with my legal career to notice that Jackson was out on the corner hustling with local thugs.
Every night I went to bed thinking: “Please, don’t make me financially responsible for my pet’s poor life choices. Please.”
There are a lot of situations where pet law can get rough. Pet custody is fiercely contested in divorces. Your pet might go down a bad road like mine did. And heaven help you if yours commits the greatest crime in the canine criminal code: biting somebody. You will also have to make provisions for your animals after you’re gone.
Pets are beloved family members, but there are some legal realities that you need to be aware of if you are a pet owner. To that end, here are a few Pet Law fundamentals.
1. Pets are property, and “duds” happen.
If life sells you a lemon, trade it in for an orange. Or at least something that isn’t dying. It may not be the kindest idea, but if you purchase a pet with an illness or a disease, you can return it for a full refund in 21 states. Then you just have to live with the knowledge that Snowball is going to be left on a rock to be consumed by an eagle. Circle of life.
2. Laws regulating the treatment of pets vary from state to state.
All laws regulating pet care can be reduced to one Elvis Presley maxim: don’t be cruel. Don’t leave you dog outside in a hurricane. Don’t leave them in a hot car. And of course, no dog fighting. I thought this one was common sense, but it seems necessary to say it out loud because Michael Vick did 18 months for it. If dog fighting gets you off, you might also want to consider a psychiatrist. You’re a sadist.
3. Pet custody issues are real: understand them.
Look, you love your dog and so does your wife. You might love it more than your car but less than your boat. You might love it more than your children but less than your dinner. To be frank, the law doesn’t care. Pets are considered property no matter how meaningful deep attachment to them may be.
So, in the event of a divorce where pet ownership is in dispute, the court has to consider a number of factors similar those that would be considered during a child custody hearing. Of course there are differences, since you legally own your dog. You don’t own your kids. That’s why you can’t put them to work in your salt mine.
Still, the rubric for pet custody and children is similar. The court considers who took care of the pet and who can pay for it. If it is a family pet, it will likely end up wherever the children go. Either way, this is going to be in the judge’s hands. If pet custody is important to you, prepare your case.
4. Include your pet in your estate plan.
So, you’ve been dead for a week. Your dog has finished mourning at your grave and now he needs to eat. Who is going to feed him? If you want your pet taken care of after your passing, you can state in your trust or will what provisions you are leaving behind for its care. You can create a “pet trust” to outline the care of your pet after you are gone.
There is good chance there is someone in your life who will take the pet for free because generally speaking we all no at least one person who isn’t completely heartless. If you don’t, I’m sorry that you are dying alone, but cheer up! You can see to your pet’s care either way. Leona Helmsley left millions of dollars to her dog. I mean, none of it was spent on her dog, but if the dog one day developed the powers of speech through the integration of silicon-based microprocessors and the carbon-based canine brain, he might say something like, “You know what I want to do? I want to take LADY to TONY’s for a nice plate of spaghetti.” If that were to happen, TRAMP could afford to take his girl for a nice dinner and a bottle of Chianti.
If you want your pet to fill the void left by your absence with a jettsetting, playboy lifestyle and a solid gold grill, you can leave them your entire estate. Tony will appreciate the business.
Do you have questions about pet ownership or pet law? Fire away in the comments below. Better yet, let Royal Legal Solutions help you. Whether you want to protect a show dog or racehorse as an asset or incorporate your emotional support peacock into your estate plan, we’ve got you covered. Our nonjudgmental, empathetic attorneys are pet parents themselves. Schedule your consultation today.