Dividing Family Pets in Divorce

There are many emotionally challenging decisions that a couple must deal with in a divorce. One of those concerns involves a determination on the future of the family’s pets. When there are children of the marriage, the question of who will get which animal can become a source of heartbreak and a divisive leveraging tool.

Pets Are Personal Property.

Regardless of the animal’s purpose and function in the home, pets are personal property. In a divorce, personal property must be allocated as either the separate property of one spouse or the marital property of both spouses. When canines, equines, felines, or exotics are designated as community property – acquired during the marriage – then the value of each pet must be divided between the parties.

Although some sporting and competition animals are very expensive to acquire and maintain, many family pets have no significant market value. The pet’s value is in the relationship and affinity that the owners have with their furry or feathered companion. This can make the division of marital pet assets very difficult because one party must ultimately surrender possession of the animal they hold so dear.

Encouraging Mediation and Settlement of Pet Issues.

Unfortunately, a casualty of divorce may be the family pet when neither party is willing or able to take over exclusive care and custody of the animal. Some of the most common reasons why people relinquish their animals to shelters for potential adoption include divorce and personal problems, relocation or lease restrictions, and insufficient time available to spend with the animal.

Although there is no legal criteria for animal custody in divorce, couples may apply visitation and shared custody principles to family pets. The parties are free to enter into any voluntary arrangement in the care, custody, and control of their living property. For some families, sharing possession of the animal is a good alternative. The pet may spend weekdays with one party and weekends with the other, for example, or some other shared custody arrangement. Even a creative visitation schedule can be negotiated as part of the couple’s divorce settlement. When a pet provision is included in the separation agreement, the dog or cat that is the separate property of one spouse may still be allowed to spend quality time with the other party during “pet visitation.”

Divorce Mediation and Pets.

The parties may present any issue to a private mediator as part of their divorce mediation, and that includes concerns over the future of the family’s pets. As with any other disputed issue, the mediator will list the parties’ points of agreement and contention, adding reason and neutrality to the decision-making process. Important pet matters to discuss include the animal’s relationship with each member of the family, along with more practical matters. What training is required? Who will regularly exercise the animal? Who will pay for veterinary expenses? What will be the effect on the children with or without the animal in their lives? These are all important considerations in mediating pet issues in a divorce.

Lastly, when a couple plans to marry and intends to acquire animals, a prenuptial agreement may save a lot in hostility and legal fees in the event of a future divorce. Many animals live long lives, so planning the pet’s future well in advance of acquisition can be beneficial for everyone.