Increasingly, pet custody is becoming a source of contention in family law cases. For one thing, there are more pet owners than ever before. During the COVID-19 pandemic, dog and cat adoptions increased by up to 250%. When you couple that spike with the fact that up to 95% of pet owners consider their companion part of the family, pet custody battles are inevitable.
Unfortunately, Alaska, California, and Illinois are the only states with pet custody laws on the books. So you probably will not be able to hire a pet custody lawyer to help you remain a fixture in Fido’s life.
Nonetheless, here are some important considerations to keep in mind considering this murky area of the law.
Pets are typically treated as property
There is no concrete standard for judges to determine pet custody, so for the purpose of division of property, pets are treated like property in divorce and most courts award possession based on ownership rights.
Of course, with how attached pet owners can become to their furry friends, it seems cruel to treat them the same way you treat the family toaster.
“The law has not kept up with the values of many people in the legal system, particularly in the family court,” said Cordell & Cordell Principal Partner Joe Cordell. “Animals now occupy a more important role than they did 100 years ago, much less 500 years ago, which is the source of much of the law that we have still.”
However, some courts are starting to acknowledge that pets are special to their owners and should be treated as more than mere property.
Some courts have even started applying a “best interest” standard for pets like that used in child custody cases. Courts may consider which party provides most basic needs, vet visits, and even social interactions.
There have been pet custody cases where the party could not agree who got to keep the family dog so the judge ordered split custody with the dog alternating periods or weekends with each owner.
You can even find free pet custody agreement templates online to help you work out a pet custody arrangement.
Although it seems cruel not to consider the special bond owners have with pets, using this best-interest analysis is potentially a slippery slope from a legal standpoint.
“The one place I hate to see us go is to create this complicated system of custody like we have with kids with animals,” Mr. Cordell said. “There is a drawback to going down that road. Right now, the solutions can be hard, but at the same time it’s much more straightforward than if we went down a custody road.”
Pets can factor into spousal maintenance awards
A judge will generally not require someone to pay “pet support” in divorce since animals are considered property, but pets can factor into maintenance in a roundabout way.
If one party is being awarded maintenance, the pet costs could be considered a living expense and will go onto the list of needs that the court uses to determine the maintenance amount.
It’s usually best for the pet to go with the kids
Typically, if kids are involved, pets will go with the kids in order to create a sense of continuity for the children.
Divorce is particularly hard on children, and pets can offer a sense of security through what will likely be one of the most difficult times of their life.
If you are a parent and a pet owner, you need to consider how the pet can help your children cope and how taking the pet away can add even more trauma.
It’s best to determine pet custody out of court
It is best, if possible, to work out an agreement with your spouse regarding your pets rather than leave it up to a judge.
Most judges simply do not want to be bothered with arguments over pet custody. They have enough seemingly more important things on their plate to deal with and are often annoyed when they must help squabbling pet owners decide who gets to see Fluffy and when.
Although it is very easy to get emotionally attached to a pet, it is important to keep everything in perspective. If you end up letting your spouse keep the pet, there are literally millions of other adorable animals in need of a loving home.