5/2/2014 9:51:00 AM,
Jeff D. Gorman
(CN) - Because his wife treated their dog like a child, a Vermont man should receive custody of the family dog in a divorce case, the state's highest court ruled.
Daniel Hament and Laura Baker have no minor children and were able to agree on the separation of their property and finances in their divorce.
They left it to a family judge in Chittenden, however, to determine who would keep Belle, their German wirehaired pointer who is now 11 years old.
The trial court refused to consider a shared visitation schedule, saying Belle would go to whichever spouse took better care of her during the marriage.
Hament, a veterinarian, said he took Belle to work with him every day. Baker said she cared for Belle daily and took her for walks in the woods.
The trial court ruled that Hament should own Belle because the dog is accustomed to the routine of going to work with him.
Another factor in the ruling was the judge's observation that Hament "treats the dog like a dog," as opposed to Baker who dotes on Belle and treats it like a child.
Baker fought the decision as arbitrary on appeal and challenged the lack of a shared-custody arrangement.
In affirming last week, however, the Vermont Supreme Court noted that the trial judge properly considered the evidence to arrive at her decision.
"Since the record was undisputed that both parties were extremely attached to the dog, it would have been difficult to determine which spouse had the stronger connection," Justice Geoffrey Crawford wrote for the court. "While the family court could consider both welfare and emotional ties in awarding the dog to one of the parties, it had discretion to decide what weight to give to these factors."
The six-page ruling emphasized that Belle as a pet had to be treated like property.
"In contrast to a child, a pet is not subject to a custody award following a determination of its best interests," Crawford wrote. "Because a pet is property, the family division must assign it to one party or the other. Like other aspects of the property division, the assignment is generally final and not subject to modification."
A court order is inappropriate to have Baker spend time with Belle, according to the ruling.
"Unlike child custody matters, there is no legislative authority for the court to play a continuing role in the supervision of the parties with respect to the care and sharing of a companion animal," Crawford wrote. "Divorce has few concrete advantages for the parties, but one of the greatest is that they are no longer compelled to be in contact over the care and use of their property or the way they spend their time."