Who Let the Dog Out?

Anybody that has pets understands how special they are to a family. Pets are loved, give love and, at times, truly are a member of the family.

Because of this attachment that many feel with their animals, when a couple divorces or breaks up, which spouse gets custody of the pet can be hotly contested. A 2006 survey by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers revealed that 25 percent of attorneys noted an increase in pet custody issues - 90 percent of the disputes were over the family dog.

While many families consider the family pets children, they are not seen that way in the eyes of the law; there is not a "best interest of the pet" standard recognized in court. The law considers pets to be property, to be divided among splitting spouses like the house or car. A New Jersey appellate court, however, decided that family pets should be considered special or unique martial property, such as one of a kind artwork.

Deciding Who Gets the Pet

Being as pets are living property, special considerations and arrangements may be taken into account when awarding them to one or both spouses. During divorce mediation or before a judge, custody arrangements with shared custody and visitation may be devised, and agreements allocating costs incurred by the pets, including vet care, may also be negotiated or decided.

When deciding who gets the pets, a court may look at factors such as:

  • If one of the spouses owned the pet prior to the relationship
  • If the pet is owned by or has a special relationship with a child
  • If one of the spouses is the primary caretaker of the pet, including feeding, walking or letting out
  • If the pets have a special relationship or bond, if there are multiple pets

If you are entering a relationship with a beloved pet or are considering adopting a pet with your spouse, consider a prenuptial, postnuptial or other type of agreement that determines who will receive the pet should the relationship end - deciding this ahead of time could prevent a legal battle later. An experienced family law attorney can assist you in making proper arrangements ahead of time, or advocating for your wishes during a divorce.