How the Law Sees Pets in Divorce

Even on occasion when a judge realizes that a pet has a special place in the family's life, in general courts do not see pets any different than the property a couple divides on the basis of equitable distribution. That doesn't prevent couples from fighting bitterly over their pets just as they would if the pet were a child. One after the other high profile cases show the lengths people go to keep their pets with them or away from their ex partners. A few reported cases are as follows:

  • In 2001, a woman in Texas was sentenced to 30 days in jail for refusing several orders from a judge to turn over the two cats her former husband was awarded in the divorce case.
  • In San Diego County, California a couple waged a two-year battle over their dog, which wound up costing over $146,000.
  • In another case in Maryland, two years after their divorce, a couple returned to court fighting over their dog. The circuit judge has threatened to sell the animal and split the proceeds between them if they can't agree on visitation. The wife has spent $20,000 to keep the dog.
  • In Dallas, Texas a couple spent $16,000 in lawyer fees fighting over their dog. After the husband "dog napped" the animal for nine days, the wife now gets custody and he gets visitation.

These cases make it apparent that people have deep love for their pets and will do anything to keep them. But sadly, in most cases, judges refuse to address the issue, considering it a waste of the court's time. Several states across the country treat pets in the same way they would in dividing up a room full of furniture.

Plainly stated, the dog is part of the marital property and has to be equitably divided according to its value, if value can be assigned. Receipts must be shown proving which spouse has been the functional owner of the pet. In other words, the spouse who has paid for things such as medical treatment, training, grooming, maintenance and upkeep is the one who is considered the owner and gets to keep the dog. In some rare cases, tests have been administered based on the "best interest" theory for custody, which measures the degree of attachment between pet and human.

Some people don't realize it, but animals react to a split of their human companions. In a divorce, dogs and cats become depressed and anxious. Usually, dogs and cats go through a period where they look for the missing person until they adjust to the person being gone. They do not understand why the person has left. Many dog trainers report getting calls about pet behavior from those who don't realize that the break-up of the relationship was the cause of the pet's distress.

According to a poll taken by members of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, the number of pet custody cases is on the rise and until things change according to law, most courts will continue to treat pets as property. Based on the law, it's probably best for a divorcing couple to make every attempt to negotiate pet custody amicably on their own rather than getting the courts involved.

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