With a divorce on the horizon or already in the Maine legal system, you may be figuring out how to divide your marital assets and liabilities, such as the costly wine collection, the television, the house, the car, the business, etc. However, in addition to determining the custody of children, many divorcing couples are tasked with the intense and emotional question, “Who gets the family dog, cat, bird, or other pet?” Fact is, pet custody issues in divorce cases occur quite frequently; in a 2006 survey of the 1,600-member American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, nearly 25 percent of them reported noticing an increase in cases involving pets.
Yet, in the eyes of Maine’s divorce and property division laws, your pet may be no different than that television, wine collection, or other material item; the pet is a piece of property that can be awarded to one side or another, unless a shared custody agreement can be made. As one of the leading divorce and property division attorneys in the Portland ME area, we have helped many individuals sort through heated and emotional divorce-related disputes, and whether mediation or litigation in court, we can help ensure that your divorce proceedings are smooth, time and cost-efficient, and effective.
For a consultation with our Portland ME family law firm, call us today at (207) 210-6555.
Overview of Pet Custody Cases in Maine
In many divorce cases right here in Portland, possession is generally about 90% of the fight. Disputes often involve who owns what or when something was purchased. In other words, the conflict in many divorce cases involves marital vs. separate property. Since Maine law sees pets as property, they are given a similar consideration. Below is a basic legal definition of marital and separate property.
- Marital Property — Includes all property acquired by either spouse subsequent to the marriage
- Separate Property — Includes property acquired before the marriage, as well as marital property that was acquired by gift, property acquired in exchange for property acquired prior to the marriage or property acquired by gift, property acquired by a spouse after a decree of legal separation
Despite this whole “pets are property” notion in Maine courts, judges still understand that pets are living animals who share a deep emotional connection with their owners and families. As such, the family court may also consider the relationship between the pets and any children and whether the pets should stay with the children (this might factor into the children’s best interest).
Domestic Abuse and the Family Pet
Maine, like only four other states, has special protections in place for animals when domestic violence is a factor in the couple’s divorce. It is only in this case that Maine courts legally view pets as more than property. According to Title 19-A, §4006: Hearings, 5-A, Interim relief; care, custody or control of animals:
“The court may make an order concerning the care, custody or control of any animal owned, possessed, leased, kept or held by either party or a minor child residing in the household and may enjoin the defendant from injuring or threatening to injure any such animal.”
In other words, if the family pet is seemingly in danger, the court will make a decision in the best interest of the pet. However, it’s important to remember that if one spouse knows the other really wants the dog or cat, then that pet may be used as a bargaining chip in the divorce proceedings. Sometimes, the other spouse can use the pet as a tool of revenge.
How Courts Determine Pet Custody in Maine
In order for the Maine court to determine who retains ownership of the pet (personal property) in a divorce case, the court will consider several factors. In Maine, property is divided in an equitable fashion, which means the court will divide the property fairly but not necessarily equally.
For equitable distribution, the court considers how long the couple has been married, future earning ability of the parties, and who put the most effort toward acquiring and taking care of the pet.
The court will also determine whether or not the pet is marital or separate property, its worth, and whether or not the couple has an agreement about property division, either through a prenuptial or postnuptial agreement.
Call Schultz Family Law in Portland ME Today
Property division in Maine divorce cases is a complex, multi-faceted legal issue, where many different factors are considered so that the court can make a fair and legally sound decision. At the same time, however, Maine courts always encourage couples to work out these issues beforehand; collaborative divorce and mediation are also popular legal options for couples who want to avoid the uncertainty, time commitments, and high costs of court litigation.
For a free consultation with Portland ME divorce lawyer Susan Schultz, call us today at (207) 210-6555.