Who Gets the Dog After Couples Break Up?

Domestic animals, such as dogs, are considered personal property under Massachusetts law. When a romantic relationship ends, what happens to the pet the couple jointly owned? This issue has become increasingly common for couples going through a break-up, particularly when they disagree as to who gets to keep the pet.

Interestingly, until recently, there was nearly no case law in Massachusetts on the subject. The Appeals Court’s decision in Lyman v. Lanser finally provides a comprehensive explanation of how pets should be treated when there is a split between unmarried couples.

In Lyman, the couple had purchased a dog together. While the ownership registration only listed one owner, they evenly split the cost of buying the dog. At the time of the purchase, they verbally agreed that, in the event of a separation between them, they would nonetheless share the dog equally. The couple lived together with the dog for a several years until they separated. After their relationship ended, they amicably shared the dog until one of them cut off all communications with the other and refused to allow him access to the dog.

The plaintiff filed suit against his former partner for conversion and breach of contract, based on the agreement to equally share possession of the dog post-breakup. The plaintiff did not seek any monetary damages, requesting instead specific performance of the contract. The plaintiff also moved for a preliminary injunction, seeking an order of the Court requiring the parties to shared possession of the dog pending the lawsuit. The motion judge allowed the preliminary injunction. The defendant appealed the decision before a single justice of the Appeals Court, who vacated the preliminary injunction, holding that the motion judge had improperly treated the dog as if it were the parties’ child instead of as personal property.

The plaintiff appealed the single justice’s decision to the Appeals Court. In reversing the single justice’s order, the Appeals Court reasoned that co-owners of personal property can make an agreement governing their respective rights to possess and use their property, and such an agreement can be specifically enforced. The fact that the agreement is not in writing does not bar specific performance. Moreover, injunctive relief is appropriate because a party who seeks to obtain an animal’s companionship cannot be fairly compensated in damages.

While the Appeals Court discouraged the use of the phrase “shared custody” when discussing pets – as the motion judge had done – it concluded that the principles of property and contract law can be applied to a dispute involving a pet dog.


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