A reasonable approach to pet custody after divorce

In previous posts, we have discussed the issue of pet custody after divorce or a breakup (of cohabiting partners). Despite the fact that many Americans consider their dogs and cats to be members of the family, there are few (if any) laws that dictate how custody decisions should be handled. State laws still treat pets as property, which means that if there is a dispute, the spouse who can prove purchase or adoption is usually granted custody.

Some within the legal system feel that things should stay this way. On the other end of the spectrum, there are some who believe that the pet custody process should be as involved and complex as the process for determining child custody. Most, however, believe that a middle ground between these extremes is both achievable and ideal.

As an example of someone who goes overboard with the idea of codifying pet custody procedures, one Huffington Post blogger advocates several tests to determine which “pet parent” more consistently acts in the animal’s best interests. This is generally a good principle to follow, but the examples given are more than a bit silly. Pets, for instance, probably don’t care if they drink tap water instead of filtered water, nor will they be able to tell the difference between expensive dog/cat food and lower-cost products.

More reasonable criteria to consider would include:

  • Which spouse spends more time with the pet, including going on walks and vet visits?
  • Which spouse seems to have a better relationship with the pet?
  • Which spouse will be able to take care of the pet post-divorce, including affording food and living in a residence where pets are allowed?

Children (the human ones) should also be a major consideration in decisions about pet custody. If parents are sharing child custody, perhaps the family dog could be included in the rotation. Having the family pet go where the kids go might be an easy way to solve the problem. If one parent has sole custody, it might make sense for the pet to stay where the children will be fulltime.

Because there are no laws in place governing pet custody, it is most beneficial for all involved to come to an agreement/arrangement in out-of-court negotiations. If pet custody is important to you and you want to engage in these negotiations, please discuss this with your family law attorney.

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