How Are Pets Handled In Divorce?

Mark and Julie are getting divorced. The process hasn’t been fun, but it’s mostly been reasonable, and settlement negotiations have all but concluded. They’ve decided who gets the house, who’ll keep which vehicles, how to handle retirement savings, and how to divide stock options from Mark’s employer. What they can’t decide is who should keep their golden retriever, Zippy.

Mark says “the Zipster” should go with him, since it was his idea to get a dog in the first place. Julie feels this would break her heart. She loves Zippy unreservedly, and knows what it takes to care for him. She thinks Mark has romanticized the idea of living in a bachelor pad with his canine companion, and fears that when reality hits, Zippy won’t get the exercise and attention he needs, deserves, and thrives upon.

It’s a common problem. With 62% of American households including at least one pet, and about 50% of American marriages ending in divorce, it’s no wonder so many couples struggle with this dilemma. Apparently more of them are taking it to court, as well: The American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers reports a significant recent increase in pet custody disputes.

In some cases, it can be a no-brainer. Maybe one spouse has a great affinity for the dog, and the other is indifferent. Or, since she’s moving to a place that doesn’t allow pets, he agrees to keep the cat. Maybe a mutual friend offers to take the animal, and everybody’s happy with that arrangement.

However, pet custody can be a difficult issue, and sadly, some pets are used as pawns in divorce financial battles. For instance, if you have a strong emotional attachment to your pet, your husband likely knows it – and he may try to use it against you. Knowing how devastated you would be to lose your furry friend, he might threaten to pursue custody himself, hoping that you’ll give up something financially valuable to get him to drop the demand. It’s a kind of emotionally based extortion that divorcing women know all too well.

If you’re in that situation, you’ll need a strategy of your own so you can fight back.

First, you should know that while you may view your dog or cat as a member of the family, in the eyes of the law your pet is considered personal property, just like your living room couch or your microwave oven. (It’s worth noting here that if you and your husband breed and sell animals, they can be considered business assets. Purebreds can sell for significant sums, and if raised for that purpose, would be treated differently than a family pet.)

As personal property, then, pets can be covered by pre-and post-nuptial agreements. If you’re divorcing, then it’s too late for either of those things; but for people about to be married or working on a post-nuptial agreement to address other assets, it might be a good idea to include a provision about what should happen with regard to pets, in the event of a divorce.

Assuming things are well beyond that point, here are some questions the court is likely to consider in pet custody cases:

  • Whose pet is it? If the pet belonged to either spouse before the marriage, then it’s likely to be considered separate property and stay with that same spouse after the divorce.
  • Are children involved? If there are children in the family, then sometimes it’s best for everyone to have the pet go where the kids go. If custody of the children is shared, perhaps custody of the dog can be shared, too.
  • Who’s been caring for the pet? Who walks the dog, feeds it, and cleans up after it? Who buys the pet food and supplies? Who takes him to the veterinarian for check-ups, or if he’s sick or hurt?
  • After the divorce, whose life will be better suited to pet ownership?  If your husband works long hours and travels often and on short notice, while you work from home or have a predictable schedule, your lifestyle is arguably better suited to providing a good setting for a pet. Animals do well with consistency and lots of positive interaction with their humans. You can state definitively that living with you, the animal would not often be left alone or cared for by strangers.

You’ve probably got a good idea how to make your case to keep your pet. Now, take a few minutes to put it all in writing. A well-reasoned, factual statement with ample documentation will help the court decide in your favor. Document your work schedule, if that’s favorable. Ask your vet to sign a statement acknowledging that it is you, not your husband, who brings the animal in for checkups and treatments. Ask a neighbor to attest that it is you who regularly walks the dog. Save pet supply store receipts with your signature on them. Who signed the application for the dog license – was that you, too? Get a copy from your city clerk. It can all go in the file to support your case that as primary (or sole!) caretaker of your beloved animal, you deserve to have him live with you after your divorce.

So, what will happen to Zippy?

I’d like to think that Julie and Mark could work out a shared custody agreement. After all, they both love the dog, and even though they’ve been sarcastic and unkind in their discussions about who should keep him, they have compromised when handling other aspects of their divorce. Failing that, Julie can use the documentation she’s prepared to make her case before a judge.

Jeffrey Landers is a member of the DailyWorth Connect program. Read more about the program here.

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