How "Custody" of an Animal is Determined. A Case Example

Harris Law Firm Profile Image

Harris Law Firm

Albuquerque, NM


Don Harris prevailed on behalf of his Client in what is becoming a more frequent venue in today's courts; Custody Hearings for Pets. The Albuquerque Family Law Firm of Don Harris ultimately prevailed in a case that garnered significant media attention, with several articles in the Albuquerque Journal. This was a hard fought victory for his client after a two day trial before the Honorable Beatrice Brickhouse in the Albuquerque District Court.

Don represented a Gentleman by the name of Matt Forslund who was seeking to regain "custody," or really ownership, of his Great Dane named "Diesel", who was taken by Mr. Forslund's former girlfriend when they separated and she moved back to Illinois, and Mr. Forslund remained in his home in Albuquerque.

Mr. Forslund, an avid dog lover, specifically though, of Great Danes, sought legal action after he realized his ex-girlfriend had taken the dog, without his consent or knowledge, with her. He called the police to help retrieve the dog before she left the state, but was informed that it was a civil matter and he would have to take her to court. Mr. Forslund made the wise decision to hire an experienced and creative divorce and family attorney in Don Harris.

During the year long dispute both parties sought to establish, among other things, that their love and care for the dog was greater than that of the other. The court was not interested in who loves the dog more or who walked the dog more. The family courts in New Mexico classify pets as personal property, like a chair, or an entertainment center, not as having feelings or emotional attachment to one greater than the other.

Even though the courts in a New Mexico divorce proceeding are likely to view pets in the same regard as an item of property, the owners feel differently about the pets. They have a deeper connection to their animals than they could never have with most other items of property. They also receive much more back from pets in an emotional sense. This case brought that aspect into light during Mr. Forslund's testimony. He repeatedly testified that "Diesel " was irreplaceable.

For that reason, the Court clarified that the dispute over the animal was not technically a "custody" dispute, because the Court was not concerned about the best interests of the dog. In a New Mexico child custody proceeding in the Albuquerque courts, the Court would have been primarily interested in the best interests of the child.

When dividing property in a divorce proceeding, or in any proceeding, the emotional attachment that one party has to a particular, and very unique, item of property can determine the outcome. For instance, if one of the parties was in the military, and was awarded some medals, that property would hold special significance to that party. It would not be merely valued and divided like other property. Essentially, the Albuquerque District Court treated the dog like an heirloom, and awarded the animal to the party with the strongest emotional attachment.

This is an issue that many people find when dealing with who gets to keep the family pets after a separation or divorce. In most cases, there are children involved and the courts see that it is more important to the kids that the pets remain with them, to limit the amount of emotional trauma they are already experiencing from the separation or divorce.

But that is not always the case, as with Mr. Forslund and his former partner. They have no children, and Mr. Forslund looked at the dog as being equivalent to his son. He testified to that fact repeatedly when asked to place a monetary value on "Diesel". Mr. Forslund was not interested in receiving monetary compensation for the loss of his dog "Diesel". In his mind, "Diesel" was irreplaceable, like any child.

This problem has arisen in other family and divorce proceedings in New Mexico, and in other states. With couples marrying older, with fewer couples having children, and with the prevalence of domestic partnerships where children are less likely, the problem is certain to occur more often.

In the end, Don Harris's legal preparation and presentation convinced the Court. The Judge decided that Mr. Forslund should be awarded permanent possession of "Diesel."

If you have an issue involving a family pet in a divorce or separation, or any other issue where you need an experience, creative and aggressive family law attorney in Albuquerque, you should do what Matt Forslund did: Contact the Albuquerque Divorce and Family Law Firm of Don Harris, Attorney at Law.

Swipe to view more

Talk to a Lawyer

Want to talk to an attorney? Start here.

How It Works

  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Connect with local attorneys