Divorce & Pet Custody: How Does it Work?

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pet custody

Many divorces can get very ugly, especially when custody issues arise. One of the biggest trends in the last decade in divorce law is the increasing issue of pet custody. When couples separate, both often have a strong attachment to the animal and want it to stay with them post-relationship. They want this badly enough to take their soon-to-be-ex to court over it.

Some couples will spend thousands of dollars fighting over whom the dog or cat will live with. Others manage to find a ways to share custody of the animal. It can get as complicated as rotating custody periods, agreements about veterinary expenses, doggy daycare, toys, etc. Often they turn to the courts for a decision.

Unfortunately, in the eyes of the law a pet is a possession, not a child and custody is not a concept most judges are willing to entertain with respect to possession of a pet. In the eyes of the law, ownership of an item is determined by who purchased it. If it was purchased by both parties together then its value is assessed and one party buys out the other or the item is sold and the proceeds split. Making a decision about a living creature such as a dog or cat in this manner is not always in its best interests.

In an attempt to prove ownership to the courts, people may produce bills of sale, veterinary receipts, food receipts, and even have neighbours testify as to who was more involved in the daily care of the animal. Increasingly though judges are recognizing that the animal’s welfare is also at stake and needs to be taken into consideration. If there are children that are attached to the pet, the animal almost always goes with the kids. In cases of joint child custody this can mean the pets travelling back and forth with the children. Who can best care for the animal is also sometimes taken into consideration. Judges are becoming increasingly unsure of how to award possession of a pet when it is not an item like a coffee table or couch. Unfortunately, the law does not yet give them any guidance in this matter.

It is possible to reach a joint pet custody agreement, usually in the more amicable splits. There is even a book that has been written on the subject called “What About Wally? Co-Parenting A Pet With Your Ex”, by Steven May and David T. Pisarra, Esq.

Although it can be difficult when your life is already going through a rough time to agree to let go of a beloved pet sometimes it can be for the best. Many divorces end up with the family home being sold and at least one, if not both, parties living in apartments or with family for awhile until they get back on their feet. Depending on the situation, it is not always in the animal’s best interests to have them live with you. Recognizing and accepting that is sometimes a much better measure of how much a pet is loved.