To the shock and dismay of many married pet owners across the country, the court system still considers pets items of property when it comes to divorce and dividing assets. As unfortunate as this may be, it’s the reality of the situation for most cases, and as such, it’s important to know what considerations are factored when deciding whom the dog will go with.
Judges in divorce cases historically have gone through the same steps in determining pet ownership as they did with personal property. They figured out which property belonged to the couple (rather than just each spouse), how much each piece was worth and whether some agreement was in place about who got what.
But even though dogs are considered property, courts are not oblivious to the fact that they are a more unique situation than say, a television or sofa. Here are some things to remember:
- If the dog was purchased by one spouse before the marriage, then the dog legally belongs to that person as their property. Even if the other person does most of the caretaking, that isn’t considered justification.
- Living arrangements often play a big role in determining who gets the dog. A spouse that moves may end up in a location that forbids pets. Assuming the dog was purchased during the marriage, then the spouse who can legally shelter the dog will likely retain possession.
- Work schedules can also impact the decision about where the dog ends up. If one spouse works long hours or is away from home frequently, than the dog may go to the spouse who will be around to care for it more often.
- If the dog belongs to a child, than the outcome of child custody proceedings may impact where the dog goes. If sole custody is awarded to one parent, then the dog may go with the child and that spouse.
Other factors that dog owners going through divorce should be aware of include: care and any medical costs associated with the dog, moving or traveling internationally, and the possibility of dividing multiple animals up between spouses if there is more than one dog or pet.
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Best Interests Of The Dog
Recently, some states have begun to consider a dog’s “best interests” when deciding which spouse the dog will end up with.
In fact, in Alaska, legislation recently passed that now defines a dog as a “vertebrate living creature, not a human being”. The practical effect of the law means that dogs are now treated in a similar way as children are during the divorce process.
Under these conditions, even if a dog is nonmarital property acquired by one spouse prior to the marriage, if it’s in the best interests of the animal to go with the other spouse after a divorce, a judge could rule against the original purchaser of the dog.
What Should Pet Owners Do?
For dog owners contemplating divorce, the first question to ask is: who bought the dog, and when? If the dog was purchased or adopted before the marriage, then it’s most likely that spouse will retain ownership, unless there are extenuating circumstances that prevent them from keeping the dog.
It’s still very uncommon for couples that are engaged to consider including pets in a prenuptial agreement, but for dedicated dog lovers this may be something to consider if they’re worried about their canine companions down the road.
Finally, be honest. Sad as it may be, legal wrangling over pets is often the result of one party trying to harm or spite the other, with no real interest or consideration of the dog itself.
Dogs are not TVs or sofas. They have emotions and feelings like any other living creature, and it’s in everyone’s best interests if both spouses are honest about their feelings for the dog going into a divorce. It’s okay to feel angry and upset, but don’t take it out on the dog just to hurt your spouse’s feelings.