Although most animal owners feel strong affection for their pets, only humans are at issue when discussing the concepts of custody within Michigan's family law statutes. This doesn't mean that animals have no rights in Michigan - they are protected under animal cruelty statutes and ordinances (discussion of which is outside the scope of this blog). Rather, Michigan law considers family pets (and all animals which are owned, as opposed to wild animals) as personal property, or if you're into Middle English legal terminology: chattel. So Fido, the loyal family dog, has the legal equivalency of the
loyal family dining room set, in a divorce case in Michigan.
Most commonly, divorce litigants fall into one of two categories: those who cannot settle without the pets being assigned to them, and those who are willing to bargain away the ownership of the family pets. Either position is okay, moral, ethical, upright, etc. People are allowed to assign different levels of emotion and sentiment to the ownership of animals when dealing with a (often) traumatic life experience such as divorce.
What is not okay, and what the Court could view negatively, is when litigants with no intentions of keeping family animals in the long-term, use possession of said animals as a bargaining chip or point of leverage in property settlement negotiations.
Highly Disturbing Example: Husband decides he wants a divorce, moves out of the marital home. Wife is upset at Husband and threatens to kill Husband's beloved cat, who remains within the marital home (it won't come out from under the bed). Husband is forced to forgo an equitable share of marital property to secure the safe passage and return of the family cat.
The above example sounds extreme, but the sentiment behind it is unfortunately not. Courts in Michigan have begun to recognize that the negotiating leverage that can exist from the possession of family pets is real and occasionally very antagonistic. Some Courts in Michigan will look to the specifics of the animal's life when deciding whom to assign the animal as part of the equitable distribution of the marital estate. If one party routinely walks the dog, feeds the cat or takes the pot-bellied pig to the veterinarian, they are more likely to be assigned the joy of pet ownership after the divorce is finalized.