Divorce, to put it bluntly, is not fun. Not only is it expensive and complicated, if you're a pet parent, you have a whole other aspect to worry about.
So who the heck gets the pet in a divorce? Given that dogs, cats, and other animals can truly be considered our copilots through life, sticking by you through breakups and new flames, it’s only natural that people want to know what will happen if they separate from their spouse. This guide will cover everything you need to know.
Believe it or not, pets are legally "personal property"
Even though a pet can feel like a full-fledged member of the family or your best friend, the law doesn't exactly see them in the same light. In fact, from a legal standpoint, pets are technically classed as "personal property", just like items of furniture or a TV. That seems pretty crazy to us at Figo - we think all pets deserve to be seen, just as they are (emotional, sentient beings!!) - but it is the law, nonetheless.
Because of this, courts tend to be wary about making judgments or getting involved when it comes to disputes over dogs and cats. In general, it's up to the couple to make the decision on where the pet will go and who it will live with, as well as deciding how and when the other person can visit or look after the animal.
Who gets custody of the dog in divorce proceedings?
The rules around pet custody for dogs in divorce proceedings can vary from state to state, and as explained above, courts are often reluctant to get involved in these matters, due to the lack of pet custody laws or precedents to help them decide on the right course of action.
In general, if a judge does have to make a decision, they may take a range of factors into account, such as who paid for the pet, who has been caring for it primarily in the past, the living situation of both parties, if there is any history of animal abuse for either party and so on.
What if the pets ‘belong’ to my children?
The situation regarding pets and divorce can become even more complicated when kids are involved, as children tend to develop very strong emotional attachments to animals. For kids, going through a divorce is often a very stressful experience, and the prospect of losing their pet can make it even harder.
That's why, in these kinds of cases, if the situation ends up in court, a judge will usually award custody of the pet to whichever spouse also has custody of the child or children in question. This allows the kids and the pets to stay together, minimizing the risks of stress related to their separation.
What is a ‘petnup’?
You've probably heard about prenups, or pre-nuptial agreements, which are agreements or contracts that couples put together before marriage to protect themselves and decide on the division of their assets or property if the marriage breaks down.
However, you might not have heard about ‘petnups’. "Petnups" are like prenups, but focused exclusively on pets, outlining who the pet belongs to, who they will live with, who will care for them and pay any relevant veterinary costs, and so on. So, if a couple gets divorced, the "petnup" can be used to help a judge decide who the pet should go to and avoid any dispute or drama.
A "petnup", like a pet trust, which can be obtained with the aid of a guardianship attorney, is a recommended legal arrangement you can make when you have a pet, as it helps to ensure that your dog or cat will get the best possible care if a certain situation occurs (like divorce) and should also reduce any emotional turmoil for both the pet and their owner.
Can you get joint custody for a pet?
There are only a few states - Alaska, Illinois, and California - where joint custody for pets is a legal possibility. In all other states, joint custody for dogs simply isn't an option; some courts may be willing to accept a case and make a decision, but they’ll usually simply pick one partner to award sole ownership of the pet, rather than any kind of joint ownership or custody situation.
Shared custody of dogs
Shared custody of dogs is only a legal possibility in Alaska, Illinois, and California, for the time being. However, laws are in the process of changing in many states, and it’s possible that shared custody could become more accessible in the future.
Shared custody of cats
Just like with dogs, it’s not currently possible to obtain shared custody of cats in most states. However, as legislation evolves, the situation could change.
How to get custody of a dog
If you and your former partner cannot agree on who gets a dog after divorce, you may have to take the matter to court and let a judge decide. The judge will take multiple factors into account and listen to arguments from both sides.
To have the best chance of obtaining custody or ownership, you have to demonstrate that you have consistently cared for your pet and can provide the home and care they need in the future.
Mike Johnson is a freelance writer and human rights activist and enthusiast. Through his extensive research and commitment to the field of law, Mike has established himself as a well-decorated writer in this field. Mike currently settles in Las Vegas working with DrizinLaw Law firm and loves starting his day with a shot of espresso and cycling through his neighborhood.