Divorce can be hard for everyone — you, your former spouse, your kids, and even your pets. They may not be able to express themselves but if they could, your furry babies would not want to see any of their parents go.
Just like with child custody, determining who will take care of the pets after a divorce can be a difficult topic. While courts consider pets as mere property, for most households, they are part of the family.
Who takes full custody of the pet?
As much as possible, this matter should be settled by just you and your ex. Family law is clear about resolving conflicts about child custody, but not about pets. This means courts will decide on who owns the pet just like who owns the TV set. If you have multiple pets, they will divide them between the two of you, without considering if one pet is more attached to the other. If the pet was first owned by either of you prior the marriage, chances are, it will be given to the first owner.
For many of us, that is unfair because pets are more than just animals. They are family and we’re definitely spending money on them — from their food to their veterinary care, grooming, care, boarding, etc. Just like our children, we take care of them, nourish them, love them, and plan our future with them. Definitely, there are a lot of emotions involved. And, after bonds are formed, it is often hard to be apart from our beloved pets.
If both you and your spouse could not bear to live without your pets, the first and most amicable solution would be to have shared custody. It may sound odd, but putting your terms on paper — such as the visiting schedule, decision-making, and sharing of expenses — will definitely make it easier for both of you.
While you may not always be on the same page with your ex about some aspects of your pet custody agreement, you can get often get things settled with proper communication. Remember that this type of agreement does not hold ground before the court. This is just an informal agreement between you and your former spouse.
When drafting your custom custody agreement, here are some questions you should consider:
Who will have primary custody?
Will the other spouse have visitation rights? If yes, what will be the visitation terms and schedule?
Who will be making the primary decisions over the health care of the pet?
Who will take care of the pet when the primary owner is on travel or when he or she is seriously ill?
Will a spouse be able to take the pet on trips outside the state or country?
How will you split the pet expenses?
Who will have custody over the remains of the pet when it passes on?
There are many ways to tackle pet custody. Some divorced couples decide to shuttle the pet between two houses regularly, similar with their child custody arrangements. Others opt to have the pet live with one parent for six months and the other for the rest of the year.
Does your pet need a divorce lawyer?
If you and your former spouse couldn’t achieve an amicable agreement over the custody of your pet(s), you can always seek help from an experienced and empathetic divorce lawyer. Recently, due to the increasing concern about pet custody after divorce, courts have begun to apply a more flexible analysis over who should take full responsibility of pets once a married couple gets a divorce.
In some states, Illinois for example, a new law which took effect last January allowed pets to be considered for sole or joint ownerships during divorce proceedings. The law, similar in that of Alaska, applies only to pets that are considered marital assets, not service animals.
Just as they decide on child custody, some judges are now taking into account the best interest of the pets when making a decision. For example, the court may look at which spouse is more capable of providing food, medical care, shelter, grooming, and exercise for the pet, or who would be better to financially provide for it.
A qualified attorney can help you throughout the process, from drafting a custom pet custody agreement to bringing the matter before the court. He can gather evidence of ownership, help prove that you are most suited to care for your pets, and in some cases, require your former spouse to provide financial support for them.
Going through a divorce could be one of the biggest challenges you will go through in life. Amidst the emotional stress, you also have to act immediately on the many technical aspects of ending a marriage, from dividing properties to making arrangements over the custody of your children. And if you have pets, it can be another thorn in your heart. Just like children, too often pets become helpless bystanders — unable to do anything and wishing things were just like before.
Deciding who takes primary care of your pets should be one of your concerns after divorce. Your first step would be to make a custom agreement so you don’t have to bring the case before the court. But if there will be conflicts between what you and your former spouse want, the next course of action is to let the court decide. You may need to hire an experienced divorce attorney who will help you prove that you are better suited to take care of the pets. Your attorney will also advise you what to do best, especially since some states honor the issue of pet custody and some do not.
Whatever route you take, always give importance to the welfare and well-being of your pets when making decisions. It’s not always about who wins or who has the rights. Remember, they are much like your children in that they deserve to have a happy, healthy, and safe home.