During a Divorce or Separation, What Happens to The Family Pet?

By Divorce.com staff
Updated Dec 26, 2022


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Your pet is a part of your family, and nobody will ever be able to tell you otherwise. You’ve loved that pet like you loved a child, and you’re probably concerned with how the process is going to affect your pet if you’re in the process of a divorce.

It’s only natural to care about your pet as you’d care about a human member of the family. Deciding who gets to keep the family pet during a divorce can be a complicated process.

Here’s what you need to understand about pet custody, including whether or not pet custody exists where you live.

What Is Custody

Unfortunately, Pets Are Considered Property

A pet is something that you purchase, and they have a monetary value. This means a pet is considered property in the eyes of the law.

When you’re getting divorced, you need to divide your property, so the value of your pet becomes a part of the property you need to divide. This means the pet will likely be awarded to only one person rather than choosing a joint custody arrangement.

Separate Property

If the pet belonged to one person prior to the marriage, the pet will stay with that person.

If you married someone who had a dog and you fell in love with that dog throughout the duration of your marriage, you have to let that dog stay with your former partner. Think of it the same way you’d think of stepchildren.

Your partner was the dog’s parent first, and you came along to love the dog later. Sadly, you don’t have a pet parent claim.

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Community Property

Most states recognize things that you obtained together during your marriage as community property. If you adopted a dog after you got married, the dog technically belongs to both of you. When all of the community property is divided during a divorce, the property will be divided equitably. That means that you’ll each get roughly half of the property, with exceptions for special circumstances.

One of you will be able to keep the pet, and one of you won’t — just like one of you will get the house, and one of you will get the car. The pet is treated like an asset, especially if you paid a substantial amount of money for a purebred pet.

A Persian cat or a French bulldog may cost several thousand dollars, and the pet will be assigned a monetary value.

Some States Are Beginning to View Pets Differently

Many people in the country view their pets as children. This is especially true for couples who couldn’t have children or decided not to have children.

They devote their lives to caring for their animals, and the love they feel for their animals is quite real. In fact, most people with pets prefer to refer to themselves as pet parents rather than pet owners.

Alaskan courts determine what is in the best interest of the pet. They’ll usually award the pet to the person who has the most time to take care of it or the person who is staying in a home large enough for the pet.

The state of California can award sole or joint ownership of a pet, which is very similar to custody. If a divorced couple is awarded joint ownership of a pet, that means that both people are equally responsible for caring for the pet.

Other states may enact laws over time, especially since pet custody can be a significant issue during divorces. Many couples would like to see the court have a strategy that treats their pets more like living things and less like objects.

How the Court Will Decide Who Gets To Keep the Pet?

The court is very focused on numbers. When deciding who will get to keep the family pet, the court will consider a lot of things.

If one partner has documented violent tendencies or a history of animal abuse, the court will not allow them to have the pet.

If you have documentation (like text messages, photos, or videos) that demonstrates your spouse being cruel or abusive to animals, the court won’t hesitate to give you your pet. The court would never knowingly place an animal in harm’s way.

The court will always consider the emotional appeal of children because it’s the court’s primary drive to protect children in situations of divorce, child support, or child custody.

If the children are close with the pet, the court will feel inclined to give the pet to the parent who will have sole custody or primary custody of the children.

If you’re using a joint custody arrangement, the court will consider who has spent the greatest amount of time and money caring for the pet. If one partner bought the pet, primarily paid the vet bills, and bought all the pet’s food, they’re more likely to get the pet if they ask for it.

The court will also consider the amount of labor required to care for the pet. If one person didn’t spend any leisure time with their pet but did all of its caring and grooming, the court may see their contribution as equally meaningful.

How To Decide Who Gets the Pet During a Divorce

If your pet feels like your child, the last thing you want to do is contest the situation and take it to court. Then, the judge will decide who gets to keep your pet. You don’t want to give up all control in the situation.

If you have to decide who gets the family dog (or cat) as a part of your divorce, you have the option to make the decision yourself.

Divorce mediation empowers couples to decide how to end their marriage on their own terms. You’ll be able to talk things out and come to a mutual decision about how you’d like to divide all of your property - not just your pets.

Mediation can be especially helpful for couples who have multiple pets. Someone can get the cat, and someone can get the dog.

It’s best to keep the animal’s relationship with the two of you in mind. If one of you has a closer relationship with the animal, it’s more considerate of the animal to allow them to stay with the person they’ve bonded with the most.

Creating Your Own Pet Custody Arrangement

You can create your own pet custody arrangement outside of your divorce. It’s an unorthodox situation, and the court will have nothing to do with it. You can do this by voluntarily incorporating your pet into your custody agreement or by creating a legal contract that stipulates how your pet should be cared for.

The Pet Goes Where the Kids Go

For couples who are devoted to their pets nearly as much as they’re devoted to their children, consider making an informal rule that the kids and pets go together in a joint custody situation. Your kids might appreciate being able to bring their dog or cat with them to their other parent’s house.

There’s no way to enforce this idea because it’s completely voluntary, but if you both love your pet, it’s an easy way to share time with your pet.

Creating a Pet Care Contract

You can create your own pet custody contract outside of your divorce. It cannot be enforced through family court, and no one will be held criminally accountable for breaking the contract. The contract and any violations of the contract would be a civil matter.

You can incorporate a consequence into the contract that says the person who doesn’t abide by their part of the contract must permanently forfeit the pet to the other person, and you can sue them for breaching the contract.

This is something you’ll need a lawyer’s help with, especially if you want the contract to be clear and enforceable. Both people will need to sign the contract, and the contract will likely need to be notarized.

Going this route is going to be expensive and complicated, especially if you have to take your former partner to court in order to enforce the consequences of the contract. If you really love your pet and neither of you wants to risk losing ownership, it might be worth the time, money, and effort of going this route.

Learn about divorce online with Divorce.com

Make Mindful Decisions Throughout Your Divorce

If you’re separated or getting divorced, keep the power in your hands by pursuing an amicable divorce whenever possible. You should be able to decide who gets to keep the family pet through compromise and conversation.

Discuss the situation with your partner, consider your pet’s feelings, and consider your children’s feelings. You can use mediation to come to a conclusion if you’re feeling stuck. When you decide, you can file for uncontested divorce and settle pet custody on your own terms.

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