How client divorce or separation can affect patient ownership and payments

  |   Practice Management

Pet Ownership vs Pet Owner Agents to direct veterinary care and bill paying

Legal pet ownership, when related to pet parent’s divorce or separation, is a court decision and not one to be made by the veterinarian. Ownership of a pet associated with separated or divorced pet owners (pet parents) should only be determined by viewing a copy of the court order. If impossible to get, two alternatives would be: (1) to rely on a notarized general power of attorney from the non- present owner, even if it does not specifically speak of pets, but they would be covered under personal property directives, or (2) get a specific agency agreement also called a limited power of attorney.

The Law: Pets are Property

Currently in the legal system, pets are classified as property just like cars, televisions or any other personal property, even though pet parents would like to believe their pet companions are members of the family. But pets are not children, legally speaking, nor members of the family (in a court’s perspective) and their (pet) custody in a marriage or couples dispute, does not hold the standing of a minor child or dependent family member.

The divorce court, except in cases where cruelty can be shown, will look for proof of ownership and usually award 100% custody (to one party), unless there are some exceptions for the need of the children’s relationship to the pet.

In determining proof of ownership, a judge will consider the following:

  • Registration and license – The most common document to be recognized by the court is the initial registration required for the majority of household pets. This document will have the name of the person who registered the pet with the local authorities and paid the associated licensing fees.
  • Veterinary records – The court may consider the veterinary medical records. A veterinary initial visit requires an owner to provide the owner’s name and address. Some veterinary facilities will provide for the owner, if a couple, to list both names clarifying joint ownership. A court may further review the veterinary record to see which party paid most of the veterinary bills as an indicator of legal ownership. Since this information is important to a court, veterinarians should be diligent in having sign in forms (paper generated or digitally generated) that clearly state ownership for one or two people and for designation of an authorized agent of the owner, if there is one, with power to bind owner for care and expenses associated with that care.
  • Microchip records – Microchipping serves as a record of ownership. Just as with veterinary records, this chipping information can show record of ownership and may provide for joint ownership record also. Like veterinary records, this record supports an owner’s interest in the animal’s well-being in the eyes of the court.
  • Pedigree registries – If a couple has a purebred pet, registering him with the American Kennel Club (AKC) or the Cat Fanciers’ Association (CFA) or another recognized organization will show who has legal ownership; both parties can be listed as owners.

Client requests for service may be made by specifically designated agent

Veterinarians practice under a verbal agreement or hopefully a written document, which is the best practice with an informed consent agreement with the client, who is presumed to be the owner. In several states, like Washington and California, spouses are bound by community property law, commonly (except in rare cases under separate property rules) passing joint property ownership of a pet to spouse by marriage. In Oregon, a non-community property law state, property ownership may be jointly or if only one spouse is the owner of a pet, then the spouse or another designee, may be an official agent of the owner.

Whether in Washington or Oregon, owners may designate legal binding third party agents to act for and/or in place of owners, but businesses must confirm that grant of authority. Veterinarians should request and provide space on the sign-in forms for the designee (legal agent) to be listed, in addition to owners. This agent, when specifically named, legally binds the owner for the work ordered and for the bill incurred. This is of course as long as the owner has officially authorized the agent (as mentioned above). An owner is not responsible for the bills of an unauthorized agent. Therefore, the clinic must obtain an owner’s directive and confirmation of who are to be the owner’s agents or the clinic should not go forward with work other than minimal urgent emergency care for humane reasons, without owner’s direct order.

Microchip identification by itself does not hold proof of ownership, after separation or divorce, if a court order has been issued inconsistent with the chip ownership records. Before the court order, it is a good presumption of ownership for a hospital.

Euthanasia work for non-life-threatening reasons, should never be done without contact with all owners, when there are more than one, if any indication of a divorce or separation is known.

Records Confidentiality and transfer

AVMA has found 37 states with specific laws covering confidentiality of patient records. Washington is one of them, which requires owner consent for release as indicated in the following directive.

  • Medical records and medical images are the property of the veterinarian or veterinary facility that originally ordered their preparation, and may be released upon request by the owner or authorized agent. Upon request by the owner or authorized agent, copies of records will be made available as promptly as required by medical necessity or public health circumstances, but no later than 10 working days upon the owner or authorized agent’s request. The veterinarian may charge copying fees as set forth in WAC 246-08-400. Medical images shall be released upon request of another veterinarian who has authorization of the owner or authorized agent of the animal to which it pertains, but the medical image shall be returned within 10 working days following receipt of a written request from the originating veterinarian. Costs of copying the medial image may be charged.

Clients have the right as described in the practice act and regulations to request and be provided a copy of the records in a timely manner, including copies of radiographs. So, the hospital has the duty to confirm who the client is, whether they are the owner or agent, before releasing records. If the clinic or hospital knows of a pending divorce or separation, they need to see the court order or get the direction from both owners, if that is how the pet was signed in on the record.

In summary, ownership should be determined when clients initially present at the veterinary hospital and care (other than emergency stabilization) should not be granted without all owners’ consent. Separating spouses or roommates are legal adversaries and sometimes will intentionally request inappropriate care, without knowledge of the other owner that could create veterinarian liability.

By Karl Salzsieder, DVM, JD, CVA and Joshua Dailey, JD, CVA, Salzsieder Legal Services, PLLC and Salzsieder & Associates, TPSG, LLC dba Total Practice Solutions Group, NW.


Posted February 1, 2019