Ken and Sally were married with 2 german shepherds. They both loved their dogs and treated them like their children. They took their dogs on virtually every family vacation they had together. They would find restaurants that let them bring their pets. As with many families today, their German Shepherds were part of their family.
When they decided to get divorced, they had to decide what to do with their dogs. Even though Ken traveled and was hardly around, he couldn’t bare the thought of losing his dogs. Even though they were tough to handle, Sally loved the dogs and was the primary caretaker for them. What to do?
What happens to pets in a divorce?
I love my dogs. My dogs love me (I think). I cried when my old friend, Sammy, had to be put to sleep. He had been a part of my life for over 17 years.
I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to have to fight to keep my dogs. But for many people divorcing today, that’s exactly what they have to do.
These days, fights over pets have become more and more common in divorce cases. Some people may have difficulty believing that divorces with pets are being treated more like child custody cases and not like the way they used to be treated—like property.
Recently, the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (AAML) noted that they have found a significant increase in divorces with contentious issues surrounding family pets.
Pets are becoming an item that spouses argue about in divorces because they are now seen as part of the family, much like children. A recent divorce involved a couple who spent over $100,000 fighting over their rescue dog and who should have control over the animal.
Today, we spend billions of dollars on our pets because we treat our furry friends like members of the family. As a result, the final decision about a pet in a divorce can create a huge conflict between the spouses.
Should you have a strong emotional connection with your pet, your spouse may try and exploit your emotional sensitivity to your relationship with your pet. Indeed, they might threaten to try to get the court to give them the pet, just to gain leverage on you so they can take something else from you that has significant value.
It’s a shame, but more and more in America today, splitting the pets can get pretty contentious.
Many people believe that their dog or cat is a highly adored member of the family. Well, if that’s the case, you will be disappointed to learn that in the eyes of the State of California, your beloved pet is just classified as personal property–similar to a sofa in your living room or china set in your kitchen.
Doing What’s Best for Your Pet
The single most important advice we give divorcing couples is to always think about your children first, before you worry about your own needs.
When you have a pet, you don’t need to think about your pet’s needs first, but you should try to at least consider what is best for the pet when deciding your pet’s future home.
For example, if your pet is more attached to one of you, then that spouse should be the one who takes custody of the pet. Or, try to be the bigger spouse, which means that you may be the one who gives up custody of the pet should you move to a residence that doesn’t allow pets. Another example is letting the other spouse take custody if you have to travel quite a bit for work and just don’t have the time to take care of the pet.
Try to consider what might be best for your pet when splitting up with your spouse. It’s only fair.
Pets Need Consistency
As a pet owner, I understand how important consistency is for my dogs. They need an established daily routine where things happen on a predictable schedule. They need to eat and be walked on a regular routine.
When deciding who should get custody of your pet, consider which one of you will be able to provide consistent care, which means a predictable schedule for taking care of your furry friend.
The spouse who consistently arrives home by 6pm may be better suited to taking care of a pet, than a spouse who usually works late hours. If one of you doesn’t work, then you may be better suited to keeping your pet company during the day and, therefore, more suited to pet custody.
Should you decide that you want to make some type of custody sharing arrangement, it will be better to allow each of you long periods of time with the pet—as opposed to frequent shuffling of your pet between homes.
Children and Pets
Until recently, following a divorce, many courts would order that your pets follow the children and go with whichever parent received custody of the kids. In other words, the pet would live with the parent who had primary custody of the kids after the divorce.
Generally, courts felt that it was better for the children to have the pets around. But that view has changed. Especially with the increase in new living arrangements and the increase in couples who do not have children.
Who has a life more suited to owning a pet?
When you are trying to decide which spouse should get custody of the pet, try to think about which one of you has a life more suited to owning a pet.
You may have a job that requires long hours or a lot of traveling. Your spouse may work from home or just have a more suitable schedule for taking care of a pet. Perhaps the spouse with the more stable hours would be better off taking the dog or cat.
Of course, your pet would rarely be lonely and would have better daily interaction needed by most living beings. Think about which of you would be better for your pet.
If you are constantly fighting over your pets, there may be another significant issue that you are not dealing with and that is the real concern—control. In many divorces, one spouse will try to control their ex-spouse, even after the divorce has been over for a long time.
For example, one way to try to control an ex is to repeatedly take your spouse to court over visiting your pet (should you have visitation). Another way is refusing to pay for a vet bill.
The emotional attachment we get from pets is extraordinary. One way to really disturb your ex-spouse is to upset their relationship with their pet.
Be certain, your ex-spouse could try to start fights with you over your pet because they are jealous of your relationship with your pet.
Ownership rather than custody
Even if you are like me and consider your pet to be a member of your family, you will be surprised to find out that most family law judges consider your little, furry friend to be personal property. Although there is no California family law case that speaks directly on the subject, it is fairly clear that pets are personal property that can be valued and divided, just like any other property.
Since the courts consider pets to be property, the laws of property division—community property versus separate property—will direct your judge in their decisions. So, if you wish to have some type of visitation agreement with your spouse then you must be on the same page with the other side.
Basically, should you need to go to court to have the judge determine if your pet is yours or your spouse’s, then the judge must decide it if is separate or community property. As with other property, if your pet was purchased during your marriage, it will most likely be community property and ownership will be split between you both.
On the other hand, if the pet was purchased before marriage by one of you, the pet should be separate property of the spouse who purchased it. Finally, if the pet was purchased during marriage with separate property money, the pet probably will belong to the spouse who used their funds to purchase the pet (Unless you both agree in writing that one spouse will own the pet).
It is very common to see one spouse use the strong emotional attachments, with their dog or cat, the other spouse has developed against them by using the pet as a bargaining chip during the negotiations for the financial and non-financial dissolution issues.
When you can come to an agreement with your spouse about visitation with your pet, some critical issues must be worked out before you can feel confident a good deal has been made.
Some major issues include: the actual visitation schedule, where the exchanges of the pet will take place, and who will drive the pet to the transfer spot. As we discussed, keeping the pet on a consistent schedule will be important as will maintaining a similar amount and type of dog or cat food. Also, try to allow the pet to take a toy with them to make them feel safe and secure.
As we can see, many of the similar issues we discuss in the child custody section are important when looking at pet visitation.
Something else for you to consider is the significant costs incurred when owning a pet. The major costs are for vet bills and food. As any good pet owner knows, owning a dog can cost several thousand dollars per year. And my small pug lived for over 17 years. That’s a huge expense if money is tight.
If you’re going to split custody of your pet then you will need to allocate all of those costs for your pet. And don’t forget to decide how to handle emergencies; they can be very expensive and extremely stressful.
A prenup is your best bet
Overall, your best alternative is to put together a prenup with your fiancé, before you get married, that would lay out all of the options and set a visitation schedule or have the prenup state that one of the spouses, and only one of you, would own the pet.
If you decide on the visitation option, you can spell out who is obligated to pay all of the costs such as vet bills, food and emergency situations.
Putting a pet prenup together can relieve much of your stress when you divorce and the pet becomes a contentious issue. Yo can also confirm ownership to one spouse of a pet brought into the marriage.
Most courts in California will confirm an agreement between divorcing spouses that is fair to all involved.