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What do we do about the dog?

I’ve had more than one client utter a version of the statement, “She can have the kids, but she can’t have my dog.” The attachment to our pets doesn’t just go away after the divorce decree is entered, and it’s a common issue that must be addressed through the divorce process. Who gets the pets and why?

  1. Pets are property. Not kids.
  2. Pets may follow the children.
  3. The expense of the pet will be considered by the judge.

There’s no question that pets become an issue in many divorces, and dogs are most often the contested pet of choice. When pets are in dispute in a divorce they are legally treated as property, and emotionally treated as children. I’ve seen parents of children fight harder for their dog than they do for their kids.

As property, it’s left for the judge to simply determine who to award the dog to, but its rarely that simple. Property is divided either 50/50 or based on an equitable division in most states, and it typically looks like a business transaction in which partners are splitting up the business equally. Pets can become a contentious issue when both parties want the pet, or neither party wants the pet. 

If you have more than one pet, don’t assume they will be treated like children and kept together. Just like two 70-inch televisions, the judge is more likely to split pets up if the parties can’t agree on who’s getting what.

If the pet is considered the children’s, it may follow the children. Therefore, the visitation schedule with the children and parents may be a determining factor in the award of the pet. It isn’t unusual to see a judge punt on the pet issue and simply rule that the dog will stay with the kids wherever they would like it to be.

Custody schedules can also be negotiated between pets and owners, just like children. However, don’t anticipate the same level of “best interest” protections being given to dogs that are granted children. Pet custody schedules would be enforced like a contract; therefore the language should clearly articulate the intent of the parties and should make provisions for to make sure there’s a clear schedule for the pet and there’s consistency in how it’s cared for. 

Keep in mind that pets are an expense that must be accounted for, so if one party is asking for alimony it will indicate a pet expense may be frivolous, and it’s reasonable to anticipate the court granting ownership of the pet to the party who can most easily support or afford it. Don’t anticipate the judge will award pet support just because you think she should. I don’t know of a state that has a law providing for the support of pets, therefore, if support is going to be necessary it needs to be agreed upon by the parties.

The best advice for divorcing pet owners is to never allow a judge to decide the outcome of your pet if both parties want to continue to see the dog. Allow the dog to travel back and forth between parties if at all possible. However, if that’s not an option, be prepared to present evidence as to why you should be awarded the pet, just as you would present evidence as to why you would be awarded the biggest TV in the house, or the master bedroom furniture. 

Pets are just like anything else in the realm of divorce. An agreement is always better than a judge’s decision. Although neither party may be completely happy with the settlement reached, it still beats a judge’s impersonal decision-making as it relates to your personal items. Plus, the cost of litigating a pet issue could pay for a nice trip to an island to help forget what you’ve just been through. So prioritize appropriately.