FAQ: Family Law

What is Pet Custody?

The end of a relationship is a difficult time for most individuals. When going through a divorce or separating, a couple must not only deal with the emotional aspects, but the division of marital possessions. Marital possessions may include finances and property, but also include any family companion animals. Custody over the family pet has become an important issue for many divorcing couples in recent years. As lifestyles have been changing, animals have become significant family members. For some individuals, the loss of the family pet may be as emotionally traumatic as losing a human loved one. Since animals have become such a central focus of many families’, custody of such a family member is a main concern of many couples.

Legally, a companion animal is treated as property. The court must view pets as part of the marital property; therefore, the options available to the court are limited. Even though the family dog may be like a child to the couple, the court cannot reflect this feeling when dividing the couple’s property. There is no legal authority to determine custody of a pet with a best interest’s standard, as a judge would when determining custody of a human child. Therefore, the options may be to give one individual custody of the pet, determine the worth of the animal and give one party the pet’s monetary value or sell the family pet and divide the proceeds between each party. There is no option of joint custody or visitation over property. If a couple would like to have dual ownership, or visitation, of their family pet, they must create an arrangement between themselves. The court will not have legal authority to enforce such an agreement. If the couple comes to an understanding regarding visitation or joint pet custody, the court will also not be able to include their agreement in the marital dissolution or the property settlement agreement; nor will the court have the power to enforce the couples’ pet custody arrangement if either party does not abide by the terms.

Naturally, the current legal options are not acceptable to most loving pet owners. In response to the emotional aspect of determining pet custody, some courts have been using an alternative viewpoint. Although there are no specific laws concerning pet custody, there are anti cruelty laws that apply to companion animals. Some courts have used these laws as authority to consider the animal’s best interests when deciding who should get custody of the family pet. Few courts have used this standard; however, it may be more of a growing trend in the future. As pets have more of an elevated status in the family unit, people may demand that their animals be treated as more than property in the eyes of the law. A pet is more important to most people then who get’s the wedding china or the lawn mower. The value of an animal is also more difficult to determine. The market price of the family pet may not take into consideration the emotional worth the pet brings to its owners. Thus, the value of a pet as property may not be truly accurate for the pet owners.

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