Getting divorced? How to retain ownership of a pet

Millions of American households have at least one pet and, for many pet owners, a dog or cat is regarded as being another member of the family. It makes sense, therefore, that issues related to pet ownership can become heated and contentious during a divorce. This can be especially true in cases where spouses purchased or adopted a pet together or where one spouse intentionally tries to use a pet to get back at a soon-to-be ex-spouse.

While many pet owners may view a pet as being a part of the family, in a divorce a pet is viewed and treated as personal property. Because of this designation, an individual can actually account for the ownership of a pet using a prenuptial or postnuptial agreement. In cases where neither of these documents exists and divorcing spouses aren’t able to come to an agreement about pet ownership, a judge will rule in the matter.

While a pet is treated as property in a divorce, many judges are pet owners themselves and therefore sympathetic to the emotional difficulties that an individual is likely to experience when faced with the prospect of losing a beloved pet. In order to win over a judge, it’s important to present compelling evidence.

The following are factors that are likely to be considered by a judge in divorce-related pet disputes:

  • Who originally owned a pet
  • Who walks and/or plays with a pet
  • Who cleans up after a pet
  • Who takes a pet in for regular veterinarian check-ups
  • Who attends to a pet’s grooming
  • Who purchases a pet’s food
  • Who, if applicable, signed the pet’s license

In many cases, the spouse who is able to establish that he or she is the pet’s primary caretaker is likely to retain ownership. Additional factors that a judge is also likely to consider include each individual’s lifestyle. For example, if one spouse travels a lot for work, he or she may not be able to care for a pet as well as a spouse who works from home. For divorcing parents, custody decisions can also impact decisions about pet ownership as a judge may agree that a pet should stay with the kids.

For pet owners who are going through a divorce, an attorney will work to build a strong case for why an individual is better suited to retain ownership of a pet.

Source: Forbes, “How Are Pets Handled In Divorce?,” Jeff Landers, April 17, 2014