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Our pets are like members of our family.  It's not easy to part with our furry, four legged friends following a separation and divorce.  But, sharing custody can become incredibly challenging due to the varied circumstances of an average divorce.

Who determines which spouse gets the dog?

Most states recognize pets as marital property despite many spouses requesting custody, visitation or monetary support for their animals.  Existing statues governing custody & support are only designed to address children, not animals. 

Pets are often awarded to one spouse as part of the division of assets in the divorce judgement.   However, some judges are now awarding joint ownership to both spouses.  Spouses who choose to maintain a mutual ownership of their pets often determine their own visitation schedule so that each spouse has an agreed upon, set time with the pets.  

If both spouses agree on the terms of ownership they should consult their attorney(s) to determine if the custody schedule for their pets can be included in their settlement agreement.

States implementing change for custody of pets

Alaska is among some of the first states beginning to recognize pets beyond marital property through an amendment to Alaska's divorce statutes.  It requires the courts to consider the animal's well-being, effectively giving a companion animal value beyond marital property and the opportunity to rule for the pet's best interest.  In this groundbreaking change the court may award custody to one spouse based on what is best for the dog rather than based on the fair and/or equal division of marital property.

While most courts across the nation continue to regard pets as property, this type of amendment is a good start in making sure pets interests are top of mind.

Is there really something called petimony?

Yes.  Some courts have awarded sole custody of a pet to one spouse and what is termed "petimony" to that primary custodian of the pet.  This is based on each individual case, court and state.  Consult your local attorney for more information. 

What should I consider before I agree to take full custody of our pet?

It's not easy to give up so much during a divorce; relinquishing custody of your pet may be overwhelming.  Pets provide a sense of comfort and companionship, something hard to come by when divorcing.  But, this does not mean you would provide the best home for your pet.

It's important to see beyond what you want and beyond the pet's value. Your pet should go to the best home and caregiver. 

Before you take on the responsibility of custody, be sure your pet is allowed in your new place, if it is a rental, and that you are aware of any extra rent or deposits required.  Dogs should have a yard, green space and/or walking area.  Your pet needs attention, love, exercise and care.  It requires your ongoing time, affection and financial commitment. 

Shared, but different responsibilities 

Once you're on your own, you may work more demanding hours, have more household responsibilities and less money.  If you are not financially capable of caring for your pet (food, doggy daycare, vaccinations, grooming, routine care) you could request your spouse cover half or more of your pet's care in lieu of your housing and caring for the pet. 

Shared custody

In order to keep your pet in your life despite not having sole custody, you could request visitation that allows you to spend time with your pet for a set period of time (e.g. 6 months, 1 year, 3 years or until the pet's passing) following the separation and divorce.  This arrangement is not suited to everyone.

Is it a good idea to share custody of pets?

Pets are not children.  You can't explain the disruption in their routine, environment and care to them. 

Excellent communication with your former spouse is essential since your pet can not talk and tell you it wasn't fed or wasn't feeling well while in the care of your pet's "co-parent".

While shared pet custody may seem like the best thing to do for you and your spouse, it may not be the best thing for your pet.  Also, it will mean another reason for continued contact with your ex.  So, consider this option carefully.

Temporary custody arrangements

Sometimes pet owners choose temporary shared custody during separation, to determine if it will be reasonable to maintain a permanent, shared custody arrangement once divorced.  This may be the most helpful method to determine an ideal visitation schedule and financial support that works for family and pet.  

Using a pet to secure a better settlement

There are numerous methods to equalize the value of your pet or it's care

In most cases, the cost to keep and care for your pet outweighs it's monetary worth.   But, if the pet's monetary value is your primary concern, consider giving up the pet as a strategy to secure another asset with more sentimental, emotional or monetary value to you. e.g. You take a diamond ring more meaningful to you than your dog worth $1000 and your spouse takes the dog worth $1000.

It doesn't make you a bad person if you never bonded with your pet and therefore have less interest in keeping it.  But, it does raise an eyebrow if you seek custody to spite your spouse, when other assets of similar monetary value could be secured. 

The choice to use a pet or any living asset with more emotional value to your spouse and in it's best interest to remain in his/her custody may be used as a clever negotiating tactic in order to get your spouse to give on more financially beneficial assets, but most pet lovers would likely think it a rotten thing to do, especially if you actually take physical custody of a pet you do not actually want.  

These kinds of tactics are possibly why states like Alaska are amending the laws to consider pet's best interests beyond their monetary value.  It doesn't necessarily stop a spouse from spiteful negotiation tactics, but it sets a statement regarding the moral integrity expected regarding living assets.

Selling the pet

If neither spouse provides a stable home for the pet and a new home is located before the divorce and the pet's custody is permanently established, you should consult your attorney prior to transferring ownership. 

If you were awarded custody of your pet and wish to sell or give the pet away after the divorce and there is nothing regarding the sale that would violate the court order, then in most cases you may do so.  Consult your attorney prior to your divorce to ensure the terms of the pet's ownership and custody are clear following your divorce, thus confirming you will have unrestricted rights of ownership. 

Pet. Feelings. Value. (and in that order)

Decide in the best interest of your pet first (to include cost of care), then think of your feelings and it's value.  This isn't legal advice, it's basic human decency. 

Divorce can certainly bring out the worst in all of us.  At some point, most of us can understand that a pet may be far less important than custody of your child(ren), personal and familial safety and knowing how you're going to keep food on the table and a roof over your head. 

But, pet ownership is a big responsibility that goes beyond the initial purchase and value.  It requires a lasting commitment to the best interest of the pet.  Using a living animal as leverage in a divorce is something hopefully most would agree is an unnecessary low that provides neither side victory.  

In most cases you both love your pet and aren't concerned with it's value or ability to improve your settlement.  So, develop an agreement that ensures your pet's safety, care and happiness first.  Then think of your family, spouse and self when making decisions.


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