In the hearts and minds of pet owners, their furry companions are very much family. This status as full-fledged family members, however, often becomes a major point of contention for divorcing couples.
Pet Custody in Washington
If the separating couple wants to share custody, who gets what time and when? Divorces on track to be amicable splits frequently turn into Thunderdome where only one spouse gets to leave with Fido.
Custody decisions for children are made one of two ways. Either the couple creates and agrees upon a parenting plan or they litigate the parenting plan in front of a judge.
In child custody cases the court’s primary responsibility is to act on behalf of the child’s best interest. In some cases the child’s best interest is obvious. More complicated situations require multiple experts to evaluate both parents’ ability to provide the best environment for raising the child.
Pets, however, don’t fall into the same legal category as kids.
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Family Member or Property?
While many people think of their pets as children, historically the courts view them as property. As a result, they generally use the same rules for dividing property to determine what happens to them.
Washington State law considers pets personal property. From the court’s perspective, awarding shared custody (or visitation) of a pet is the same as if you shared custody (or visitation) of an iPad.
Anyone who has ever had a pet knows they’re more than simple property. You don’t have the same attachment and emotional bond with even your most beloved possessions. Usually anyway.
Because of these deep connections with pets, sometimes the courts do pay them special attention. These circumstances stand apart from typical owner/property relationships.
When deciding who gets a dog or cat or guinea pig, the courts look at various factors. This can include things like:
- Who bought the animal?
- Does one partner serve as the primary caregiver?
- Who pays for food, vet bills, and other expenses?
These are just a few things a judge may look at when determining who gets pet custody after a divorce. That said, much depends on the circumstances. A sympathetic judge whose dog shows up in every holiday photo may treat a pet custody situation differently than another.
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An Evolving Field
While the courts traditionally view pets as property, that’s changing.
Because pets have become such valued family members, laws gradually started to shift. It’s slow, as with so many legal matters, but change is on the way.
Multiple states have enacted statutes that treat animals differently than, say, a table lamp. They’re not viewed as on the same level as human children, but they’re often no longer simple possessions either.
In fact, in 2021, New York passed a “pet custody bill.” This allows for divorcing couples to fight over companion animals in family court. (There is still a distinction between pets and agricultural animals.)
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So, Who Gets the Dog?
Or cat, or insert companion animal here.
Pet custody continues to change and evolve. But as we said, it’s gradual. In most cases, you either have to come to an agreement on your own or take your chances.
It’s in the best interest of pet owners, and the pets, if you reach an agreement amicably. Creating a “pet parenting plan” with your ex probably represents the easiest way to ensure you maintain your relationship with your furry friend. The problem is, unfortunately, these arrangements aren’t usually legally enforceable.
Some courts may take into consideration who is most closely bonded to the pet, while others may look to the source and date of payment to determine ownership. A divorce attorney will be able to explain in detail how the courts in your jurisdiction are likely to assign ownership.
If you are concerned about pet custody in your divorce, your first stop should be to talk to an experienced divorce attorney. They will be able to review the facts of your case and give you an idea of what your options are.
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So the custody of a pet is more similar to an iPad than a child, that’s easy to understand. But regardless of whether or not they are property, would shared custody still be enforceable by the court the same way it can be in regards to children?
To put it another way, if my ex and I each get the kids every month, if one of us refuses to take the kids to the others’ house, the law can now intervene and enforce the custody agreement. If my ex refuses to give up a pet that was supposed to be exchanged every month, can my divorce settlement provide the same protections to ensure I have access to my pet as it can for my children?