Family Pets: The Other "Children" of Divorce
Updated: Jan 13, 2020
Pets are often considered members of the family, whether you have a dog, cat, or other small animal. If you are going through a divorce proceeding, you may be asking yourself, “what will happen to our dog?”
In the eyes of the Court, pets are considered property, or “chattel.” Pets will not be treated the same way as children. If ownership of the dog is contested and the parties have not voluntarily entered into a “custody schedule” for the dog, the Court is tasked with allocating the dog to one party only. Below is a common scenario that is seen with disputed ownership of a pet. The subject of this fictional scenario is Cooper, a black lab.
Cooper is the family dog. He was purchased 5 years ago by Cindy and Tom, who were married at the time. Both parties were present when Cooper was purchased. Cooper was microchipped in Cindy’s name only.
Throughout the marriage, Cindy was responsible for feeding Cooper breakfast and dinner. Cindy was responsible for taking Cooper to the vet and making sure he was up to date with his vaccinations. Cindy has built a rapport with Cooper’s vet. Cindy and Tom would both take Cooper on walks and to the dog park.
Cindy and Tom are now separating, and they both want Cooper. While Cindy and Tom are free to agree upon a custody schedule for Cooper, they would prefer to limit their future interactions with each other, and as a result, are unwilling to “share” custody of Cooper.
The Court is tasked with dividing marital property equitably, and the family pet is no exception. In this scenario, the Court will need to determine who will be allocated Cooper as his or her sole and separate property. It is common for the Court to look at ownership of the dog as a whole. For Cooper, the Court may, but is not required to, consider the following factors:
Who purchased Cooper?
Who takes Cooper to his vet appointments?
Who administers medicine to Cooper?
Who feeds and bathes Cooper?
Is Cooper an emotional support animal? If so, which party depends on him for emotional support?
Who is able to dedicate time to Cooper – train him, take him on walks?
In this scenario, Cindy is allocated Cooper as her sole and separate property. However, allocating the family pet is not a black and white issue, especially when both parties are heavily invested in the dog’s well-being, or when there are multiple pets involved. If you have concerns over ownership of your family pet, do not hesitate to reach out for a free consultation.
Heather M. Landauer is an associate attorney at Márquez Law. A pet owner herself, she is a proud "fur mom" to 3 dogs and 1 cat.