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Hament v. Baker

Supreme Court of Vermont

April 25, 2014

Daniel Hament
v.
Laura Baker

Editorial Note:

This Opinion is subject to motion for reargument or formal revision before publication. See V.R.A.P. 40

On Appeal from Superior Court, Chittenden Unit, Family Division. Linda Levitt, J.

Matthew J. Buckley, Williston, for Plaintiff-Appellee.

Nanci A. Smith of Nanci A. Smith, PLLC, Williston, for Defendant-Appellant.

Present: Reiber, C.J., Dooley, Skoglund, Robinson and Crawford, JJ.

OPINION

Crawford, J.

[¶1] The only issue in this contested divorce was which spouse should receive the family dog. Belle is an eleven-year-old German wirehaired pointer who is greatly loved by husband and wife. The parties have no minor children, and they were able to reach an agreement on the division of their property and other financial issues. They came to the final hearing for a ruling on which one of them would receive the dog in the divorce decree.

[¶2] Prior to the hearing, counsel for the parties met with the family court to discuss the criteria the court would apply in assigning the dog to one party or the other. The court stated that the primary factor for its decision would be which spouse was most active in caring for the dog during the marriage. The court also stated that the family division would not enforce a shared visitation schedule even if the parties agreed to it.

[¶3] During the hearing, both parties testified to their strong emotional ties to the dog and to the care that each spouse provides. Husband is a veterinarian and takes the dog to work with him. Wife spends time walking the dog in the woods near her home and is very involved in daily care of the dog.

[¶4] At the conclusion of the hearing, the court awarded the dog to husband. It found that either party would provide the dog with a good life. It gave a slight edge to husband because the dog is accustomed to the routine of going to the clinic every day. The court balanced that factor against the dog's familiarity with the marital home, which the parties agreed wife would receive as part of the property settlement. It found that husband " treats the dog like a dog," while wife is more doting and treats the dog like a child. The court concluded that the dog would do better with husband's balanced attitude towards the animal.

[¶5] On appeal, wife claims that the court erred in refusing to consider allocating the dog to both spouses in a joint arrangement. She argues that the finding that favored husband's attitude towards the dog was not supported by the evidence and that this finding provided an arbitrary basis for the award. She also argues that the court failed to follow its own criteria announced before trial and failed to enforce the parties' temporary agreement to share their time with the dog.

[¶6] We affirm the family court decision on two grounds. The factors identified and considered by the court in allocating the dog were appropriate. The court was also correct in its statement that the family division cannot enforce a visitation or shared custody order for animals.

[¶7] Section 751 of Title 15 gives the family court authority to order an equitable division of marital property after considering all relevant factors. " As we have often noted, property division is not an exact science, and the trial court has broad discretion in considering the statutory factors and fashioning an appropriate order." Cabot v. Cabot, 166 Vt. 485, 500, 697 A.2d 644, 654 (1997). " The court need not specify the weight given to each factor, but is required only to provide a clear ...


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