Divorced Parenting: Pet Custody

by Brette Sember

preschooler with the family dogsCustody of children is a hotly contested issue in many divorces, but many divorces also involve a heated debate about the custody of small furry children as well. Pets are like children to many people and the thought of no longer living with or seeing a beloved dog or cat (or other animal) can be very upsetting.

Understand the Law

If you're in a situation where custody of your pet is an issue, the first thing you need to do is understand what the law is. In almost all states, pets are simply property. They have no special status under the law and are not viewed as children (although there is growing movement to have this changed). They are simply an object to be divided in the divorce.

That being said, there are more and more cases popping up where judges do allow special testimony about the pet and make rulings that involve "visitation" with the pet.

How Pet Custody Is Decided

When a court takes the time to consider how to share time with a pet, the judge will be interested in the following factors:

  • Who cared for the pet (fed it, groomed it, walked it, and took it to the vet)
  • Who spent the most time with the pet
  • Testimony of the veterinarian as to who brought the pet in most often
  • Information about how well the pet was cared for
  • Facts about where the parties will live after the divorce and who is best equipped to care for the pet and provide a good environment

Another important factor involves whether there are children. When children are involved, the pet almost always will remain in the home with the children because of their attachment to the pet. Divorce itself is traumatic enough for a child, but to also have the family pet taken away from the primary residence is an additional blow no child needs to deal with.

Creating a Pet Parenting Plan

Because there's no way to know how a court will react to your pet custody dispute (some courts will have no time for such an argument and will just treat the animal as personal property), if you and your ex can work out a plan to share time with the animal, you'll be able to craft an arrangment that will work for both of you and allow everyone to continue to maintain a relationship with the animal.

Some things to consider include:

  • Your schedules. Try to maximize human contact for the animal. Sitting in a crate alone is no fun.
  • Maintain a regular schedule so that everyone can easily adjust to it.
  • Expect accidents and upset. If your pet is going to stay with you at a new home, there will be an adjustment. Be patient.
  • Write out your plan so there can be no confusion.
  • Be flexible. If your pet is miserable, you're going to have to make changes.

Pet Finances

Some couples work out an agreement (or ask the court to decide) about the pet's expenses. Probably the biggest expense is vet bills, but grooming, food, dogwalkers, and training classes can also be quote costly. If you are sharing time with the pet, it makes sense to find a way to share expenses. Consider apportioning the expenses in the same way you share time. If you have a 50/50 time split, a 50/50 split for expenses makes sense. A 20/80 time split would indicate a 20/80 expense split.

Brette McWhorter Sember is a retired family attorney and mediator and nationally known expert about divorce and parenting after divorce. She is the author of:

Learn more about Brette on her web site.

Copyright © Brette McWhorter Sember. Permission to republish granted to Pregnancy.org, LLC.