Proposed Tennessee law would allow consideration of pet well-being in divorce custody matters

The Tennessee state Capitol in Nashville, Tenn., is shown on Jan. 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)
The Tennessee state Capitol in Nashville, Tenn., is shown on Jan. 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)

Legislation under consideration in Nashville would change the way pets are handled when distributing assets in Tennessee divorce court.

Rep. Caleb Hemmer, D-Nashville, introduced the bill in the Tennessee General Assembly to allow a court in a divorce to provide for the ownership or joint ownership of any pet or companion animal owned by the parties, taking into consideration the well-being of the animal.

"This bill was brought to me by a constituent who previously had a divorce where it was unclear about how he could get joint ownership of a pet," Hemmer said Tuesday before the state House Children & Family Affairs Subcommittee.

The constituent did some research and saw some other states have more clearly defined how joint ownership should happen and how the courts could consider the well-being of pets in divorces, Hemmer said.

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"I didn't realize this was such a big issue, but from talking to my local judge who handles a lot of the divorces and looking into this issue, it seems to be a pretty interesting issue that obviously a lot of people care about," Hemmer said. "I know everyone treats their pet like their children, so it makes sense to kind of put some parameters around that from a legal perspective."

The legislation, known as Senate Bill 568 and House Bill 467, was recommended for passage Tuesday by the Senate Judiciary Committee and next proceeds to the Senate Calendar Committee.

Chattanooga attorney Phil Lawrence said in a phone interview that he is not familiar with the bill, but he has dealt with pet custody in divorce cases.

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"It's fairly straightforward," Lawrence said. "The judge is asked who's going to have custody."

In law, a pet is considered personal property, like a car or a sofa, he said.

"The court has the authority to deal with assets in a divorce case, and a pet is nothing more than an asset," Lawrence said. "I'm not diminishing at all how important animals are, but in my view the legislation would be superfluous."

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He questions how the court would determine what is in the animal's best interest.

The bill is set to go before the House Children & Family Affairs Subcommittee again March 14.

Contact Emily Crisman at ecrisman@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6508.