Studnicki Law Firm, P.C., Arizona Business and Injury Law Firm

Dogs: Personal Property or Family Members?

We love our pets. More than 60% of U.S. households include at least one pet. According to one poll, more than half of pet owners would prefer to be stranded on a desert island with their pet rather than another human. An estimated 1 million dogs in the U.S. have been named the primary beneficiary in their owner’s will.

Companion animals: property or family members?It may come as a surprise to many pet owners that under the laws of most states, including Arizona, pets are considered personal property. In other words, Rover is treated no differently than a couch, chair or DVD player.

But things may be changing. Recently, the Arizona legislature changed the legal definition of “personal property” to remove the word “dogs”. Previously Arizona Revised Statues Section 1-215(19) defined “personal property” as including “money, goods, chattels, dogs, things in action and evidences of debt”. This definition was changed in House Bill 2088 (Arizona Laws 2015, ch. 276). The updated statute now defines “personal property” as including ““money, goods, chattels, things in action and evidences of debt”.

Effects on Tort and Divorce Laws

What does this change mean? It’s too early to tell at this point. Two areas of the law that might be affected are tort law and divorce law.

In tort cases, pet owners whose animals are injured or killed have been unsuccessful in obtaining damages for emotional distress and loss of companionship. This is because the law does not provide compensation for emotional suffering that results from an injury to personal property. Pet owners’ damages are limited to the fair market value of their pet, and the value of the pet to the owner is not considered. In other words, the same analysis is applied to the death of a pet as would be applied to a totaled car.

In divorce cases, if one spouse owned the pet before the marriage, the pet is considered that person’s separate property just like other assets owned before the marriage. For pets obtained by both spouses during the marriage, the analysis is more complicated and may depend on factors such as who provided more care for the pet and who is awarded custody of a child (pets often go with the children). Even so, the pet is still considered personal property, so visitation rights are not normally awarded and the best interests of the pet are not legally relevant.

Shifting Trends

Is the Arizona legislature at the front of the pack when it comes to shifting trends?

  • In 2006, following Hurricane Katrina, a bi-partisan Congress passed the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act (PETS Act), which requires states seeking FEMA assistance to accommodate pets and service animals in their plans for assisting victims of emergencies and disasters. Many people in the hurricane-affected area had refused to leave without their pets, and some died as a result. Other families left their pets and suffered tremendous guilt and depression over their decision.
  • In 2012, a California Court of Appeal refused to limit the damages of two pet owners to the market value of their injured pets. Instead, the owners could recover reasonable and necessary costs incurred in treating their animals. The court pointed out that animals are already treated differently than other types of property because there are laws against cruelty to animals that do not apply to furniture, cars and other personal property. The court recognized that “animals are special, sentient beings, because unlike other forms of property, animals feel pain, suffer and die”.
  • In 2014, France has changed the definition of pets from “movable goods” to “living beings capable of feelings”.

Arguments For and Against

Opponents believe that those who want to change the classification of companion animals to something more special than kitchen cutlery are barking up the wrong tree. They argue that allowing pet owners to recover sentimental damages for the injury or loss of a pet will impose additional burdens on an already resource-limited court system, that it will allow recovery for any injured animal including fish and iguanas, that it opens the door to recovering emotional damages for prized personal property such as a family heirloom or a hard-won trophy, and that it would provide significantly broader damages for the loss of a pet than for the loss of a human being.

Supporters of the trend argue that we are becoming an increasingly civilized and compassionate society, and this trend should be reflected in our legal system. The law should recognize that animals are sentient beings that have a close connection with their owners. Laws can be passed that enable greater rights for animals and their owners while at the same time imposing standards and limitations that address the concerns of the opponents.

We’ll see what the future brings. At least you can’t accuse the legislature of not being able to learn new tricks.

  • al kroger

    this is a great story

  • Mary-Irene Kinsley

    Thank you Adam for posting this most informative article about the current state of pets as property. As the former Chair of the Animal Law section of the State Bar of Arizona I’m always glad to see this topic discussed. It’s still a little unclear why the Legislature did this but it will be interesting to see what the consequences are.

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