Nowadays, pets are treated like family. According to a 2012 Harris Interactive Poll, 91% of pet owners say they consider their pet to be part of the family.
Considering 3 out of 5 Americans are pet owners, it is not surprising that pet custody is a growing issue in family law cases.
Here are four things to keep in mind regarding your pets when going through divorce.
The judge will likely treat the pet like 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 Fido 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 similar to that used in child custody cases. Courts may consider which party provides the majority of 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.
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 that Fido goes 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 at all possible, to work out an agreement with your spouse regarding your pets rather than leave it up to a judge.
Most judges simply don’t 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 have to help squabbling pet owners decide who gets to see Fluffy and when.
There have even been cases where the judge has ordered pets to be sold to third parties when spouses couldn’t agree on who gets to keep it.
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.