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Lawmakers Consider Law for Pet Custody in Rhode Island

Having a pet is as American as apple pie and hot dogs. Over the last few decades, Fido and Fluffy have become far more than a pet. They are members of the family.

According to the American Pets Products Association (APPA), about 70% of U.S. households have a pet. U.S. households have 69 million dogs and 45.3 million cats. Those numbers reflect a significant increase over the last 25 years. The estimate in 1987 was 38.2 million dogs and 30.5 million cats. In 2020, Americans spent more than $103 billion on their pets, a $13 billion increase from just two years earlier.

Recognizing that companion animals are an integral part of families, Rhode Island legislators are considering a bill that put into law that pets are more like children than personal property in custody decisions.

Custody Decisions in the Animal’s Best Interests

Not too long ago, courts across the country treated animals like any other asset. A former couple did not split custody of a dining room table, for example. The table, or its monetary value, was awarded to one spouse. Pets were treated similarly. Judges gave the dog, cat, or bird to one person. There was no discussion of visitation or shared custody.

The mindset has been shifting, particularly over the last decade.

H7087, currently in the Rhode Island Senate Judiciary Committee, establishes a custody procedure for pets in divorce and separation proceedings based on the best interests of the animal. Assistance/service animals would not be subject to this bill.

Details of the Rhode Island Pet Custody Bill

The proposed law provides judges with guidelines in sole and shared custody scenarios in divorce or separation proceedings.

In awarding sole possession or ownership of a domestic companion animal the court shall consider the best interest of the animal by scrutinizing the following:

  • Which party owned the animal first or whether they purchased or acquired the animal together following marriage
  • Which party assumed most of the responsibility for tending to the animal's needs including, but not limited to, feeding, walking, grooming, and veterinarian visits
  • Which party spent more time on a regular basis with the animal
  • What living arrangement is in the best interest of the animal in question
  • Who presently wants sole possession or ownership and the proximity of the parties to one another to enable shared custody
  • Whether there are children involved in caring for the animal and the nature of their attachment to the animal, including consideration of which parent has custody of the children, and whether it is in the best interests of the children to keep the animal in their domicile for care and affection

In awarding joint possession of a domestic companion animal, the court shall consider the following:

  • How long the animal will stay with each party to the animal possession determination
  • How veterinary visits and costs shall be handled
  • Who shall be responsible for the basic needs of the animal including, but not limited to food, toys, pet sitting, and daycare expenses while the animal is in each party's home
  • Any additional criteria the court determines relevant to the care and possession of the animal.

Either spouse can petition the court for sole or joint possession of the companion animal. The spouses can also enter into an agreement allocating the sole or joint ownership or responsibility for the companion animal.

Three States Currently Have Pet Custody Laws

The first state to pass a pet custody law was Alaska in 2016. Courts can award sole or joint custody based on the best interests of the animal. The law also identifies pets as protected parties in domestic violence restraining orders.

Illinois passed two bills related to pets in 2018. A January 2018 bill redefined pets to companion animals that are no longer property. Family law judges now consider the animal’s best interest when determining which party gets pet custody. The August 2018 bill amended the state’s Animal Control Act. The change gave law enforcement the right to remove companion animals from unsafe environments.

In 2019, California also enabled courts to issue sole or shared custody agreements.

Negotiations for Pet Custody Agreements

Pet custody has been a common component in negotiated divorce agreements for some time. Many Rhode Island divorces do not go before a judge. Instead, the terms are negotiated outside of court. A negotiated agreement becomes an enforceable order once a judge approves of its provisions.

At McIntyre Tate LLP, we have significant experience in resolving divorce terms, including pet custody issues. Discuss your impending separation or divorce with a skilled attorney on our team. Schedule a consultation by calling (401) 351-7700 or sending us an online message.