Who Gets the Dog? Divorce and Pet Custody

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by Chris Torrone

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10.27.2021

Divorce is hard enough, but if you are also dealing with the emotional stress of having to make decisions about your pets, then things can get really complicated. If you are thinking about getting divorced, or already in the process, here are some tips to keep in mind. 

In most states, the issue of pet custody is not treated the same as the issue of child custody. Typically, pets are treated as personal property. When a couple is divorcing in the state of Washington and they disagree about the ownership of their pet or pets, pet custody is treated in the same manner as a dispute over personal property or marital property. 

Handling pet custody outside of court

The best option is to try to come to an amicable agreement with your ex about joint ownership of the family pet. If you come to an agreement in writing about the shared custody of your pet, then there may be no need to take the matter further. If you live near each other and can reasonably share the responsibilities of pet ownership, then that is great! But you’ll still need to work out the details and put it in writing, perhaps even submitting a written custody plan to the court if you think your ex may try to keep your pet from you after the divorce.

When agreeing to sharing pet custody, you need to make a detailed plan and schedule for:

  • Drop off and pick-up times
  • Sharing financial responsibility for costs associated with the pet, for both regular costs (food, grooming, training, etc.) and emergency costs (medical bills in case of an accident or illness)
  • Decision-making authority in case of emergency
  • Provisions in case one spouse moves away

For shared pet custody to work successfully, you need to consider and agree to a plan that covers all areas of pet ownership.

woman enjoying pet custody during divorce

Handling pet custody within the court

Unfortunately, a vindictive ex may try to use your pet as a pawn or try to drag out the issue in court to hurt you or drain your financial resources. How do you go about proving that the pet is yours, or that having custody is in the best interest of the pet?

First, make sure that your family law attorney has experience in working with pet ownership in divorce. After that, there are a few steps you can take and information to compile that can help your case.

If you owned the pet prior to the marriage, compile a folder of documentation that proves this. If you have a dated certificate of adoption, registration, veterinary and medical records, or financial records related to costs you incurred as a pet owner that pre-date the relationship, then you have an excellent case for keeping custody of your pet. If you had a prenuptial agreement that included your pet, then include that as well. These kinds of records prove you had legal ownership of your pet prior to your marriage. 

If you got your pet during the marriage, it may be difficult to prove that it is yours or that being in your care is in the pet’s best interest. Was the pet gifted to you or did you purchase the pet on your own? This may affect the outcome of your pet custody dispute. But again, you should still compile records that may prove that the pet is yours, or that you took the majority of financial and practical responsibility for your pet. In addition to the types of records noted above, if you had your pet microchipped under your name, then that is also compelling evidence that the pet is yours. If your pet is a purebred and you took the time to create a record with pedigree registries, then that can also help prove your ownership.

You’ll also need to prove that what is in the best interest of the pet is to remain with you. This can be harder to prove, but some aspects to consider are:

  • Was there abuse in the relationship and did it affect the pet’s well-being? Was animal neglect or other cruel treatment of the pet an issue in your marriage?
  • Can you prove that you were the primary caretaker for the pet during the marriage? (Grooming, feeding, taking the pet on walks, scheduling veterinary visits, paying vet bills, etc.)
  • Do you have children and will they be negatively affected by being separated from the family pet?
  • Is the pet a registered service animal or emotional support animal that you need to maintain your wellbeing and quality of life?

Depending on your unique situation, you may be able to make a compelling case for why keeping the pet in your home is best.

One last thing to be aware of if you choose to pursue legal pet ownership in court; you never know what kind of judge you are going to get to hear your case. You may get lucky and have a judge who is a pet owner themselves, or someone who is sympathetic towards the complexities of pet ownership in divorce. Another divorce court judge may be less understanding and may feel that a pet custody battle is an unnecessary waste of court time and resources. 

FAQ’s

Who gets the pet in a divorce?

This depends on a variety of factors and if settled in court, it may come down to the decision of the judge. A judge will take into consideration:

  • When the pet was acquired (before or during the marriage)
  • Who provides the majority of care for the pet (feeding, walking, veterinary visits, paying medical bills)
  • If the pet was abused by one party
  • If there are children in the home that are emotionally attached to the pet
  • If the pet is an emotional support animal, guide dog, or otherwise necessary for the well-being of one partner

How can I prove ownership of my pet?

Work with your lawyer to compile legal documents and other written proof that establish your ownership of your animal. Documents that include your name and prove legal ownership can include:

  • Microchip records
  • Pet adoption or registration paperwork
  • Payment for pet training, boarding, veterinary visits, food, and medication

Torrone Law is here to support the well-being of your whole family, including your pets. Schedule a free consultation to see if we can provide the legal services that you need.

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