“Turtles Ain’t People”: The Law and Pets, Part 1

Everyone have a nice holiday? Awesome. Glad that could happen. Now button up the top button on your shirt, tighten your tie, and hunker down in the cubicle of sorrow you’ve built around your desk with old files. The weekend’s over, and we got a couple months before the next day off rolls around to make us feel like humans again, it’s time to start being the faithful servant of all the idiots that can’t add two and two together without somehow making it equal “banana.”

Speaking of faithful servants, today I want to talk about pets. Pets, as in animals, dogs, cats, hamsters, snakes…though anyone keeping a cold-blooded killing machine and calling it a pet might as well just adopt a lawyer and get it over with. Pets are wonderful things to have. But make sure you have pet insurance to avoid any horrifically large bills. You should go to https://www.petsbest.com/pet-insurance-reviews for some impartial reviews. They love you unconditionally, they don’t care if you spend entire nights sitting around eating an entire ice cream cake on your own in your underwear while quietly sobbing about the condition your life is in. Pets are just happy that you give them a little food and scratch them behind the ears every now and again, except for cats, which can only be happy when your body is cold and stiff in the bed so the feasting may begin. Yeah, all in all, pets are awesome.

Unless they happen to be at the center of a legal dispute that you’ve been hired to help resolve. Then they are little balls of satanic fur that you wish would just die already so you can close the goddamn case file and get on with doing real lawyer stuff that doesn’t involve trying to determine the appropriate custody arrangement for a chihuahua.

So this will be part of a three (or more) part series taking a look at how lawyers, owners, and clients need to view their pets in relation to the applicable laws. Today we take a look at pets as property and what that means for the more financial aspects of legal practice.

Base Points: Turtles Ain’t People.

Boozy Sidenote: The tag line of this post comes from my days as a law student. I was sitting in Property I as we reviewed a case regarding turtles and property ownership. I, of course, had done none of the reading for that day, and was unprepared when, after determining the turtles could not have standing in the courts to bring an action the professor turned and cold-called me.

“Mr. Barrister,” he asked, “Explain the court’s holding.”

“Well,” I answered with the easy aplomb of someone who definitely hadn’t read the goddamn case, “Turtles ain’t people, sir.”

First, let’s recognize a universal legal truth about pets and the law: pets are property.

I’ll give it a moment for PETA to put their pitchforks and torches down and pass on to the next outrage. They gone? Cool, while they’re out there searching for me, I’m also going on record to say that I love fried chicken.

But anyhow, pets are property. Under the law, pets are classified like any other chattel your client may own: The car, some jewelry, and one Good Boy (Who’s a good boy? YOU’RE A GOOD BOY!). I’m not going to spend too long belaboring the point, I’m not going to engage in an esoteric discussion of the point, I’m not going to argue the validity of it or explain why pets are property, none of that stuffmatters for our purposes today. All we need to understand is that in advising our clients in relation to their legal matters, pets are property. Everything else is irrelevant twaddle until some state changes the law, and right now I’d rather talk about what this means for the practitioner rather than argue cows should get the right to vote or some such.

Specifically, let’s talk about the legal consequences of pets being an asset of the estate purely in relation to the financial ramifications.

Fido’s an Asset of the Estate.

The first key point to remember when remembering that pets are property is that makes them an asset of your client. This means pets are relevant to disclose for things like bankruptcy and probate work if they have any value to them whatsoever, and should likely be considered when thinking about revocable vs irrevocable trust options. This seems like an obvious proposition, but many people resist the idea that Fluffy could be seized by the Bankruptcy Trustee and sold to satisfy their debts, or that the probate court could order the auction of Spot to cover the funeral expenses. They may not think that the pets are relevant, and may think that they shouldn’t be listed on the estate information forms. Clients, however, are wrong. Clients are normally wrong.

The good news, though, is that a client’s pets are virtually worthless. Only exception types of pets are going to be treated as if they have any real value to them, say a champion breeding dog from a long line of champions. Your common household mutt that barks at shadows and thinks the garbage smells just wonderful is unlikely to have any financial value to it, and that resolves the issue nine times out of ten in estate and bankruptcy work. For the tenth time, some states allow a state-law exemption in bankruptcy to cover pets, while in almost every other case, unless the pet is a genuine asset with substantial value, the “wildcard” exemption provided by the bankruptcy code will take Fido away from auction pretty easily.

But Pets Aren’t People.

However, there are other implications of pets in bankruptcy we need to remember, such as “They aren’t people, even if you dress them up in cute little outfits.” The law, and the bankruptcy courts, will not allow you to deduct a pet’s medical expenses from your income for the purposes of the bankruptcy means test, for example. In case you’re wondering, of course someone made that argument. If you want to go into bankruptcy and give Spot medical care, you’re going to need to cut back on other things in your miscellaneous budget to do it. Pets aren’t people, and therefore their medical care, food, and expenses don’t get treated like the same expenses for people.

You May Have To Prove A Pet Is Worthless.

A while back I wrote about an insolvent estate where one of, if not the only, assets were a goddamn parrot. The widow did not want to keep the parrot, the widow hated the parrot mainly because he didn’t understand it was going through the molting process, and the widow had decided the parrot could go eat a big bag of dicks. However, since the estate was insolvent this wasn’t as simple as going out there and getting a good old fashioned pigeon shoot together (google it, it’s a thing here). No, because, see, the widow was the executrix of her deceased husband’s estate, and that meant she had a duty to preserve the estate and marshal its assets to the best of her ability in order to satisfy the creditors if possible.

And that meant at some point we were going to have to get a value placed on Pretty Polly to make sure we could show the Orphan’s Court that the parrot was a completely worthless, screaming ball of feathers and rage. If we didn’t, the end result could be a creditor may come back and ask what happened to the parrot that was listed on the inheritance return. So in order to stave off the unlikely eventuality that one of the creditors happened to be a goddamn pirate or something, we instructed our client to take the bird to a local pet shop to get an appraisal done and set the value of a used parrot.

Yes, there was a Monty Python sketch playing through my head the whole time.

“Wait, a pet appraisal?” I hear you ask, “That can’t be a real thing.”

Yes. Yes, that is a real thing.

Also, I Can Probably Take Your Pets To Satisfy A Judgment.

Oh, yeah, did I neglect to mention that? See, since pets are property, that means when someone gets a judgment against you, they can likely swoop in like the villain in a bad Don Bluth film and order the sheriff to seize your goddamn pets in a levy if they really want to. Now, the law of executions on judgments and the property that’s exempt from judgment varies from state to state, but in Pennsylvania for example there’s absolutely no protection for pets. Here are the general exemptions from execution and levy for the satisfaction of a money judgment in Pennsylvania:

1. General $300 statutory exemption, 42 Pa.C.S. § 8123.

2. Particular personal property exemption-wearing apparel, bibles and school books, sewing machines, uniforms and equipment, 42 Pa.C.S. § 8124(a).

3. Certain retirement funds and accounts, 42 Pa.C.S. § 8124(b):

4. Certain insurance proceeds, 42 Pa.C.S. § 8124(c).

5. Personal earnings, subject to the exceptions under 23 Pa.C.S. Pt. IV relating to divorce and for support, board, certain damages arising from a residential lease, and student loan obligations, 42 Pa.C.S. § 8127.

6. Tangible personal property on international exhibition, 42 Pa.C.S. § 8125.

7. Common carrier, property in interstate transit, 42 Pa.C.S. § 8126.

8. Certain veteran benefits.

You’ll notice none of those categories say “a loving pet.” In 42 Pa.C.S. 8124, which lists further exemptions, the “exempt personal property” is given as follows:

            (1)  Wearing apparel.
            (2)  Bibles and school books.
            (3)  Sewing machines belonging to seamstresses or used
        and owned by private families, but not including sewing
        machines kept for sale or hire.
            (4)  Uniforms and accoutrements.

Once again, notice the complete lack of “pets” being mentioned in there. Now, there is a general $300 statutory exemption, but you’re probably going to want to use that to protect about $300 in cash, because if I get a judgment against you I’m definitely coming after your goddamn bank accounts as well as all of your personal property.

Now, realistically, would I do that? Probably not. It takes a special type of dick to order a sheriff levy on your pets. But the important part of this is that, in theory, a particularly aggressive creditor’s attorney could obtain a judgment against the debtor and then essentially use the sheriff to seize their beloved mutt, effectively holding it hostage for satisfaction of the underlying judgment…and to be honest, most people would likely find the goddamn cash needed to get their dog out of hock faster than they would bother to find the money to get, say, their car back.

Not that I’d ever do that. Nope…but only because I hadn’t thought of it before now. I mean, thanks for asking me to write about this topic. I’m totally going to go seize someone’s cat later on. Because I’m the type of guy that will serve a garnishment on the funeral home they take your body to in order to seize your jewelry if it’ll get my client paid.


Sure, let’s toss that in here.

So we established today that pets are property, and that as property they have a financial character that makes them important to the more financial areas of law, like bankruptcy, probate, and satisfaction of judgments. Owners and attorneys must be careful to establish the value of the pet in a manner that negates their financial status, or to claim appropriate exemptions. Additionally, it behooves the good debtor’s attorney to think of creative safeguards to get around people like me, such as joint-ownership of a pet for the judgment debtor which could preclude levy by a legal pet-napper such as myself.

Next week, I’m going to continue this theme simply because I find it interesting as hell. Let’s talk next week about the legal status of pets in family law matters and how to negotiate that minefield, then we can talk about owner rights, obligations, and remedies as they relate to the ownership of pets as property.

But right now, I’m gonna wrap this sucker up and get to doing some real work. Till Friday, when we’ll talk about “The Verdict” with Paul Newman for Film Friday, take it sleazy folks.