Animal Custody — an Emerging Area of Family Law

People who live with dogs, cats, birds and other nonhumans consider those animals part of the family. They often even consider their animal as their child. So who gets to keep the family pet when a couple divorces, and how do you come to a fair decision on this critical issue?

According to a recent American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers survey, some 27 percent of attorneys have seen the number of couples who fight over custody of a pet increase in the past five years. Dogs appear to have the top spot in terms of most fought-over family pet, with cats coming in a distant second at only 5 percent. Meow! However, attorneys also said they have handled pet custody disputes involving a python, parrot and 130-pound turtle.

Pet custody truly is an emerging area of the law, even as family law courts continue to consider pets as personal property. This means that pets are part of the marriage’s community property. How this “personal property” is divided up is something couples must negotiate as part of the divorce proceeding.

But judges are beginning to be aware of the important bond that both pets and their owners share. Judges can take many factors into consideration when coming to a determination about who an animal should live with after a divorce.

In some states, family law courts have given shared custody to a divorcing couple after taking testimony from expert witnesses and the couple, and reviewing evidence provided by both sides. The judges in these cases have come to decisions by weighing all the evidence and then making determinations they consider to be in the animals’ best interests. Other times, a decision is made for primary physical custody to reside with one spouse, while the other gets visitation rights. Courts are also mandating support orders to pay for pets’ needs when custody is not shared in some cases.

Here are some factors to take into account when you are going through a divorce and are unsure who should keep the family pet. First and foremost, seek to discuss the situation beforehand and stay as calm as possible. Anger and arguing will only make it harder on all of you. Consider these questions from the point of view of the best interest of your pet.

  1. Are you capable of providing for the animal financially for the duration of the pet’s life?
  2. If you are the parent who spends the most time with the kids, are the children attached to the animal or will the animal just make it harder for you to parent your small children, even though you love the animal dearly?
  3. Has your partner or spouse been neglectful of your animal’s basic needs or in any way abusive toward the pet? Do you have any documented proof of this?
  4. Does your schedule allow you to take full responsibility to care for your animal? How can you accommodate your pet’s needs while you are at work?
  5. Where will the animal have more space to play and exercise?

If you are able to consider what is best for your beloved family pet and set petty differences aside, you will be able to come to a useful workable agreement for all involved. It is far better to negotiate a custody and visitation schedule outside of court, and far less acrimonious and costly.

Contact the Law Office of Len Conner & Associates

At the Law Office of Len Conner & Associates, we offer a free initial consultation in all family law matters, including issues relating to animal custody in a divorce. Send us an e-mail or call our office at (972) 445-1500 or (817) 288-4168 if you’re in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Or call us toll free at (877) 613-5800 for an appointment.

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