You would never buy a house without hiring a lawyer to negotiate the details and protect your rights if the deal goes sour. And you hire a lawyer to help write your will, so Uncle Sam doesn’t take all of your estate in the end. Today, there are also many attorneys to advise you on a variety of legal issues affecting your pet.
You may think that the only legal issues pet owners face are bite–related or from cranky folks who just don’t like animals. Surely there’s nothing in the world of pet ownership to make a federal case of?
Wrong. In 1920, a Brooklyn dog owner challenged the constitutionality of New York’s dog license requirement. She and her dogs had their day in America’s highest court. The issues that the Supreme Court Justices addressed in Nicchia v. People of the State of New York, 254U.S. 228 (1920) were serious. Did New York’s dog license fee amount to the government’s taking of Ms. Nicchia’s property? Was it a deprivation of a pet owner’s due process rights?
The Court didn’t think so. “Property in dogs is of an imperfect or qualified nature,” wrote Justice McReynolds for the Court, “and they may be subjected to peculiar and drastic police regulations by the state without depriving their owners of any federal right.”
Much has changed during the last 80 years. Today federal, state, and local laws recognize the need for the humane treatment of animals, the special needs of pet owners, and the need for oversight of certain pet-related business (e.g., the puppy mill problem).
Today, our pet companions are no longer viewed as just property subject to “drastic police regulations.” In fact, the care and training that K-9 personnel give their dogs is so valuable, it could legally benefit the officers who train them. In Holzapfel v. Town of Newburgh, NY (Docket 97-7114), a federal appeals court recently held that a jury could determine whether a municipality violated federal labor laws by refusing to pay a K-9 officer more than two hours of overtime per week. The officer spent at least 40 hours each week training his dog outside of normal work hours. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held that this time was “necessarily and primarily for the benefit of the employer, and…an indispensable and integral part of the job.”
Of course, not every case is a federal one, but there are many situations where pet owners can benefit from legal counsel for Fido or Fluffy. A lawyer may help you keep your home in a pet-based eviction proceeding or when your condominium board suddenly decides to ban dogs.
Many people now have provisions in their wills to stipulate who takes care of a beloved pet. Tobacco heiress Doris Duke took it a little bit further when she created a $100,000 testamentary trust to care for her dogs at Falcon’s Lair, her Beverly Hills estate. But you do not have to be a millionnaire to benefit from the advice of an experienced trusts and estates attorney to plan for your pet’s long-term care and well-being.
What would you do if the local police or shelter threatened to destroy your dog? Some attorneys specialize in fighting for your pet’s life after it has allegedly attacked someone.
Ownership and custody disputes arise in divorces, break-ups, and breeding-contract disputes. If you are in the midst of a separation or divorce, consulting with an attorney regarding your pet ownership and custody rights is prudent.
Is your pet’s dog-walking service licensed or bonded? Having an attorney draft or review a contract outlining your caregiver’s obligations (and your own) is generally a wise idea.
Your pet can benefit from a local attorney familiar with animal issues should your community, city, or state propose legislation affecting the creature you care for. Fighting against penalties for leash-law violations, or against breed-specific legislation are just two examples.
Remember, consulting an attorney is like having an insurance policy to protect you and your pet from legal problems before they develop.