Custody of Pets During a Divorce

Most pet owners today consider their pet a family member and not simply a piece of property like a sofa or a chair. However, the law has been slow to evolve as many states still consider animals to be property and subject to property rights. However, most pet owners consider their pets to be loved ones. Pet owners name their pets, refer to themselves as parents of their pets, walk them, groom them, and often sleep with them. Even the legal system is inconsistent – there are laws against animal cruelty but no laws against treating one’s chair or television cruelly.

Pets are becoming more important in divorces. Couples are beginning to dispute custody of their pets and states are beginning to differ in how pet custody is handled between divorcing couples. The method by which a state determines pet custody will influence who will eventually obtain custody of the pet.

Pet Custody Laws Differ Between States

Most states still consider pets as personal property and therefore custody is typically given to the spouse who purchased the pet prior to the marriage or who was the pet’s primary caregiver. A state that only recognizes pets as property will require proof of ownership. This may include title documents, adoption records, purchase receipts, or other documents that establish ownership. Likewise, claiming that the pet is a companion or service animal is more relevant in states where pets are considered property, as companion or service animals serve the interests of the pet owner rather than the pet itself.

However, there is a minority of jurisdictions that take a pet’s best interests into account. The best interest standard is from child custody. These jurisdictions are Alaska, California, Illinois, Maine, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, and Washington DC.

In these states, pets are the equivalent of children and afforded the same consideration by courts to ensure they are properly cared for following a divorce. The focus is on which spouse is best of the pet rather than owns the pet. In states where the pet’s best interests are taken into consideration, the pet should remain with its primary caregiver. The spouse who can offer proof that they were the one who fed the pet, took it for walks, bathed it, and generally took care of it is more likely to obtain custody.

Protective Orders

Domestic violence abusers often use animals as tools in their abuse. Abusers may threaten or harm an animal in order to exert control or power over the owner. As such, many states permit abuse victims to request restraining orders for their pets as well. The majority of states allow animals to be included in restraining orders. Only eight states do not – Alabama, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, New Mexico, Mississippi, and Pennsylvania.

Do I Need a Lawyer for My Family Law Issue?

If you have difficulty seeing your child as the holidays approach, you should contact a family lawyer today. A skilled family lawyer can answer your questions, provide guidance on your case, and represent your best interests in court.

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