Many people share pets with their family or significant other, but very few people contemplate the consequences for the pet if the co-owning relationship is disrupted. In married couples with children who are seeking a divorce, the pet will often follow the same schedule as the children, as they are often most attached to and comforted by the pet.

Alternatively, the parties may agree as to which “pet parent” will have custody of the pet as part of the divorce process, or the pet may be divided as “marital property” if the pet was acquired during the marriage. If the animal is only one party’s pet (i.e., the pet was acquired prior to the marriage or as a gift), the pet can be given to that party as “non-marital property.”  

But there are situations where couples bought a pet together, never married, are now broken up, and both parties want the pet. The Minnesota Court of Appeals recently addressed this issue in April 2020[1], and the results of the Court’s decision are imperative for every pet owner to know. In this case, a dog named Oliver was owned by Dannielle Zephier, but lived with Derrick Agate for several years under an informal agreement. Agate refused to return Oliver to Zephier, and Zephier sued for possession. The district court found for Agate. However, the Court of Appeals reversed that decision because although Zephier abandoned Oliver, Agate never gave Zephier notice of his intent to keep Oliver. The rule regarding notice is discussed in detail below.

The 2020 Court of Appeals decision relied on the legal conclusion that companion pets are personal property, which was established in 1930. (See Corn v. Sheppard, 229 N.W. 869, 870 (Minn. 1930)). If both parties own the pet, the pet is joint tangible personal property, meaning that both parties must agree on its disposition. If there is no agreement, personal property may be claimed by the other party if it is abandoned. Under common law, abandonment requires an act and some intent to abandon the property. But the Courts use the statutory authority in Minn. Stat. §  345.75 to determine whether tangible personal property has been abandoned, – which reads:

“The ownership of abandoned tangible personal property that is not subject to any other provision of statute may be transferred as provided by this section. If property has not been removed within six months after it comes into the possession of a person, it is abandoned and shall become the property of the person in possession, after notice to the prior owner. Thirty days’ notice that the time period has elapsed and that the ownership will be transferred at the end of the 30 days shall be given to the prior owner personally or by certified mail, which is actually received.”

This statute provides the exclusive remedy for arguing that an owner has abandoned a pet. The statute states that if a pet resides with one party for six (6) months, and that party provides notice to the other party of their intent, within thirty (30) days of the six-month period lapsing, the pet is “abandoned,” and the party in possession owns the pet.  Notice must be either through personal service or certified mail.

Therefore, if you intend to keep a co-owned pet after a breakup, you are required to give notice that the other party abandoned the pet.  Ownership of the pet may, then, transfer to you if the other party does not reclaim the pet within thirty (30) days.

To be clear, Minnesota’s appellate courts have only addressed this issue once, and only very recently. It is not known how this dilemma will be addressed in the future given this precedent. However, if you believe you are experiencing issues over “pet custody,” contact the Family Law attorneys at Heimerl & Lammers today at 612-294-2200 to assist you.