Throughout the course of a marriage, couples acquire many different possessions that will have varying levels of sentimental and monetary value. While it is usually easy to separate and put a value on something like a car or TV, it is much harder to put a value on items of low physical value but high emotional significance — say, a family pet.
It is fairly common for couples to have a relatively low-conflict divorce, and then get hung up when it comes to who gets to keep the dog. While the letter of the law is pretty clear on the fact that pets are to be treated as property, just like your couch or toaster, modern societal feelings have changed in this regard. Pets now hold an unofficial, yet clearly distinguished, placed above mere property (and surely some pet owners would contend they are on par with people).
It may be possible for some couples to agree to a pet visitation schedule. For example, one spouse could take care of the pet in their home during the week while the other takes care of the pet in their home on the weekends. Every-other-week options may work better for some. Even holidays can be addressed in a pet visitation schedule. Ultimately, though, the pet needs to be under the care of one who has the time and resources to commit to the health and well-being of the pet after the divorce. For some, this means keeping the pet full-time, while the other spouse has visitation hours.
Depending on how spouses craft their pet visitation schedule, they may also want to share the costs of caring for their pet post-divorce. This includes paying for food, toys, grooming and medical needs. Some pets may also have daycare costs, if both spouses work outside the home. Spouses will also need to come to some sort of agreement as to how they’re going to make decisions when it comes to caring for their pet. This is especially true when it comes to deciding what to do, and who will pay the veterinary bills, if the pet becomes ill.
Confusion over the legal status of pets
Disputes concerning pets have historically been settled using property laws. However, recent cases resolved by courts have made clear distinctions that pets have “a special place somewhere between a person and a piece of property.”
While the courts would typically take a property analysis view in assigning ownership (was the pet paid for by personal funds, a gift, etc.), rulings designating pets above a mere piece of property give divorce litigants a leg to stand on in claiming that such a simplistic interpretation is inadequate.
Sure enough, there have been other cases that have used a sort of “best interests” analysis when it comes to who should get a family pet, which are typically reserved for child custody cases. However, as the judge notes in the link above, a child custody best-interest analysis has firmly rooted standards, procedures, specialized experts and quantifiable data that can be obtained. Trying to determine the “best interest” of a pet is a near impossibility, unless there are documented cases of abuse or neglect.
How courts handle pets and divorce
While the law treat pets as property, the bonds between owners and their pets creates unique challenges for judges. It is best to reach an agreement outside of court.
Likely due to the contradiction between how the laws are written and our collective societal attitude toward the status of pets, many judges do not want to spend much time at all on pets in the courtroom — the courts are already overloaded as it is, and spending an excessive amount of time litigating on the “custody” of pets is time that isn’t being spent resolving more important issues, like the custody of children.
Therefore, it is very common for judges to use a very simple approach to assign ownership that boils down to which spouse primarily cared for the pet’s basic needs. Aspects commonly reviewed include which party had a larger role in taking care of the pet’s shelter, food, walks, grooming, vet visits, training and who is better equipped to support the pet financially.
Additionally, the spouse who is not awarded the pet will sometimes be awarded the “cash value” of the pet. This may seem like a very detached method of dealing with such an emotionally charged issue, and it probably is. To avoid this situation, couples are encouraged to come to their own agreements outside of court.