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We're Getting Divorced: Who Gets Custody of the Family Pet?

In many homes across the country, pets are considered part of the family unit. They are oftentimes almost like another child, or if the couple is childless, they are often as important as a child to the couple. In fact, Americans spend over $40 billion dollars on their pets each year! So, an increasingly hot topic across the country is custody cases involving pets.

Many people have questions about how the custody of their pets is determined. In California (and most states), the family law system provides few options for divorcing pet owners. While the law regarding human children is intended to protect the best interests of children in divorce and thus provides for shared custody and support, there is no such law for pets. Pets are considered personal property. Though most courts don't make a distinction between the family pet and the furniture when splitting up marital assets, some see change on the horizon.

Some divorce attorneys are saying that judges seem to be giving pets greater consideration under the law, considering them part of the family rather than a possession. However, at this point in time, most courts reject any notion of the "best interest" model, meaning they will not consider what is in the best interest of the pet, as they would with a human child. There are occasional cases, such as Juelfs v. Gough, 41 P.3d 593 (Alaska 2002). In this case, the Alaska Supreme Court upheld the award of sole custody of the family's Labrador retriever to the husband because the wife's other dogs threatened the Labrador's life. Thus, it was determined that the dog was not safe at the wife's residence. Id. at 595.

That being said, we advise divorcing couples with pets to craft their agreement for custody and visitation out of court. It can be difficult, during a painful divorce, to approach the topic with common sense and thoughtful discussion, but ultimately, as with children, it's always best to think about what is in the best interest of the pet. Here are a few things you might want to consider when discussing the topic of your pet's custody arrangements:

  • Is there a child involved? In some cases, it might be best to keep the pet with the child.
  • If one person is keeping the family home, consider whether it might be best for the animal to stay where it has previously lived.
  • Is one person home more than the other? Work and travel schedules should be considered, so the pet is not home alone or boarded when they could be cared for at home by the other partner.

Sometimes, shared custody might make sense, where both people get some time with the pet. Many couples who decide the best option is shared custody, find that things run more smoothly if they have a written agreement that addresses: everyday care, vacation and holiday schedules, travel arrangements, doggie daycare, boarding, food, treats, grooming, vet care, moving and end-of-life decisions. They split costs of pet supplies and sometimes buy two of each for items such as leashes, food bowls, and toys, so those items don't have to be transported when the pet switches homes.

It's good to remember that compromise, in divorce, is usually the best way to approach sensitive topics such a pet custody. We hope we have given you some insight and tips on the topic of pet custody.

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