Who Gets the Dog: How Pet Custody Works
by: Brian K. Zoeller, Attorney
Custody disputes often play a part in divorce proceedings. Even though the marriage is ending, a couple may have children to raise and want to remain active parents and do what is in the best interest of the child. Joint custody is a popular choice for many parents and allows them equal opportunity to spend time with their children. The alternative is an arrangement where one parent has primary custody while the other retains rights of parenting time and is able to maintain a presence in the child’s life.
Custody can be a heated issue for many couples. In addition to child custody, pet custody has been gaining attention. Many couples who do not have children may view the family dog as their “furry child”. Even for couples who do have children a pet is often viewed as a member of the family as well.
The question of ‘who gets the family dog or cat’ has come up in divorce proceedings and has been met with debate. It is common for families with children that often the pet will go to the spouse who holds primary custody of the children or, in the event of joint custody, the one who lives in a house with a yard. For spouses who are divorcing and did not have children the situation can be quite different. The question remains– How can pet custody best be decided?
According to a recent survey by the American Pet Products Association, 62% of U.S. households own a pet. Over 78 million dogs and 86 million cats have earned a place in our hearts and in our families. Additionally, 83% of dog owners refer to themselves as “mommy” or “daddy”.
In a court of law, pets are considered personal property, and therefore are not subject to custody agreements. If no agreement is made ahead of time, it is up to the judge to determine who will be granted ownership of the pet. Typically a court has the following options:
1. Ownership is granted to one party or the other
2. The judge can determine that the pet be sold and the proceeds split evenly between the two parties.
For this reason, it is strongly encouraged that a divorcing couple work together to create an agreement that they both feel is fair for ownership, visitation, and even sharing expenses for the care of the pet. Typically the Court will approve any agreement reached by the divorcing couple on how to handle these issues. Just as with children, divorcing couples are often able to craft agreements that are far more beneficial for all involved than having a Judge decide those matters.
While it may sound trivial initially, the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers reports an increase in pet custody disputes within divorce proceedings over the past several years. Because there is no current statutory provision for pet custody this issue is sometimes difficult for the courts to navigate. Even though the divorcing couples’ dog, cat or other animal is very much considered a member of the family the law simply does not afford them that same status. For this reason it is often advised that a couple work out the pet ownership issue prior to appearing in court.