Pet Custody – Who Gets the Family Pet in a Divorce?

dogsOver 62% of American households include at least one pet. 40-50% of marriages end in divorce. So, it is inevitable that a large number of furry family members will find themselves subject to a divorce proceeding. The American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers reported in a 2014 survey that 27% of the responding lawyers noted an increase in the number of couples who have fought over the custody of a pet during the past five years.[1]

Further, the 2014 Census Survey shows that the number of women between ages 15 and 44 who are having children is at a record-low, at only slightly over 52%.[2] For many people, it is a short leap of logic to say they feel that their pets are akin to children in terms of companionship and love. With such sentiment, the rise in pet custody cases isn’t a surprise.

For families with both children and pets, determining which parent will keep the pet is often a contentious issue—especially if one parent is vying for the pet for the children’s sake. This issue becomes even more problematic if one spouse knows the other really wants the pet, and uses it as a bargaining chip for financial or emotional leverage. Clearly pet custody can get complicated very quickly, so how does Minnesota law come into play?

The Law’s Perspective on Pets

Although many people view their pets as family members, they are treated at personal property under Minnesota law and will be subject to the same rules regarding property division as any other marital property. This also means that the court lacks the authority to provide visitation or custody rights to a pet, just as it lacks such rights with respect to other property.

Given the strong emotional bonds we share with our pets, the comparison to inanimate property can be shocking and upsetting for many clients. That doesn’t mean you should give up hope if you are anticipating a dispute over pet custody. In recent years, many courts have diverged from the traditional approach to pets as property and are helping couples determine pet custody. In Virginia, a court used a “best interests” standard to determine how to award custody of a cat. In some cases, litigants have even offered expert testimony from animal behaviorists, pet care professionals, and the pet’s veterinarian to aid their efforts. These cases, though certainly not commonplace, represent a trend towards the courts’ willingness to elevate the status of pets above that of mere property. While Minnesota has yet to implement a best interest standard regarding pets, a best interest argument may be your best bet for swaying the award of the family pet in your favor. Potentially relevant facts to the issue might include the following:

  • who purchased the pet
  • who was primarily responsible for scheduling and attending vet visits
  • who was primarily responsible for day to day care such as feedings, grooming, pet play-dates, etc.
  • whose work schedule better meets the needs of the pet
  • does the pet suffer from anxiety when in new places
  • is the pet bonded to one owner more than another
  • are there children involved who are bonded with the pet, and would an award to one party over the other party significantly deny the children time with the pet
  • is domestic violence at issue and are there safety concerns for the pet

What Should I Do?

If you are anticipating a custody dispute over a pet, you should seek the guidance of an experienced attorney who can help you devise a strategic plan that will serve the best interests of your pet. In the meantime, it may be helpful to gather records evidencing who purchased the pet, receipts for veterinary visits and care, training, food, supplies, and the like.

Can We Share Custody Of Our Pet?

Couples frequently devise custody or visitation agreements for their pets following divorce that split the pet’s time between the two households, much like they do in parenting time agreements. This allows each party greater freedom to travel or even have a back-up for emergencies that may take them away from their pet for a time. In such agreements couples may agree to share the cost of the pet’s care either by splitting costs down the middle or share the costs in proportion to each party’s income.

Depending on your relationship with your soon to be (ex)spouse, your attorney may be able to assist you in establishing a shared schedule with the pet if you think that is in your pet’s best interests.

Is There Anything I Can Do To Prevent a Dispute Over a Pet?

Pets can end up being used as tools of negotiation or means of revenge during divorce and legal separations. To avoid these emotional ploys and prevent argument, you can memorialize agreements regarding pet custody by placing setting forth terms in a pre-nuptial or post-nuptial agreement. In a pre-nuptial or post-nuptial agreement, parties can establish how ownership, custody and financial support of a pet will be handled in the unfortunate event of a divorce or legal separation. Negotiating an agreement on pet custody while parties are still on good terms better allows parties to consider what is in the best interest of their pet without the negative emotions that usually accompany divorce and separation.

1. http://www.aaml.org/about-the-academy/press/press-releases/pets/pet-custody-disputed-rise-find-nations-top-matrimonial-l

2. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/04/09/childless-more-women-are-not-having-kids-says-census_n_7032258.html

3. http://aldf.org/resources/law-professional-law-student-resources/law-students-saldf-chapters/where-should-you-go-to-law-school/

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