Four Paws and Divorce Laws

As the representative four-legged member of this firm, I felt it important to discuss an aspect of Oregon divorce laws which I feel are very behind the times. Apparently, I, Creamsicle, the distinguished office cat of this firm, am merely “property” when it comes to divorce in Oregon. Can you believe it? I am no different than a piece of furniture, a Toyota Camry, or even a DOG. Utterly outrageous and disturbing. My owners love me like a child, so shouldn’t I be included in the custody and parenting time arrangement rather than property?

This discovery made me want to dive deeper – how exactly can I be categorized as property? Will I get divided in half like your average retirement account? No, that wouldn’t work – I need to be kept in one piece. Am I appraised like some piece of fine jewelry who goes to the highest bidder? That can’t be right; I am way too valuable.

Under Oregon law, the closest parallel to how pets are handled in a divorce is to that of family heirlooms. Meaning, although there may be some very close emotional bonds at play, at the end of the day, beloved animals are still just pieces of property.

So, how does a judge, who doesn’t even know me or have any idea what I want, decide who I live with for the rest of my life? Turns out, the following are some things that the judge considers when making an ownership determination:

  • Did one party own the animal prior to marriage?
  • In whose name is the animal registered (e.g., adoption certificate, purchase agreement, or microchip registration)?
  • Is one parent more likely to provide for the day-to-day care of the animal?
  • Has one parent primarily coordinated and paid for more veterinarian visits?
  • Is one parent willing to give up some other marital assets in exchange for receiving ownership of the animal?
  • Who is better able to maintain a relationship between the animal and any children of the divorce (i.e., will one parent have the majority of parenting time)?
  • Which owner better fits the best interests of the animal?

Interestingly, the last consideration listed above, “best interests,” is the same terminology the court uses when considering parenting time arrangements for children. So, if the court assesses a number of factors for animal ownership like they would for child custody or parenting time, couldn’t parents just have a custody and parenting time arrangement for animals too? Am I really just left to the whim of some old judge? Not exactly.

Just because the default in Oregon law means that a judge has to make an ownership determination akin to property, does not mean people cannot work some sort of custody and parenting time arrangement out amongst themselves. There is a strong policy in Oregon favoring settlement agreements between parties. This policy is so strong that even if the parties agree on something that the court itself could not order (i.e., a parenting plan for a pet), a judge will likely not disturb such an agreed upon arrangement.

Turns out my parents can create a parenting plan for me, so I am sent back and forth between homes like my two-legged brothers and sisters, it just has to be something that is agreed upon – a judge will not create such a plan for the parties. But am I really going to let my parents put me in a crate for a car ride twice a week? I can assure you there will be battle wounds if I am forced into a crate against my will.

People will have to consider their long-term future when determining if a pet parenting plan is right for them. Pet parenting plans are very informal and are not typically supported by law – the agreements rely on both parties agreeing to uphold the terms. And often, a pet parenting plan sounds feasible at first, but at the end of the day, may keep people more entwined than they wish to be after separating. There are a lot of factors to consider, and when going through a separation, it is easy to lose sight of what is important.

If you need help navigating a divorce, custody, or parenting time issues in the Portland area, I encourage you to reach out to our office at (503) 882-2592 to schedule a consultation. Schaleger Philpott, PC, take good care of people and pets!