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Fighting Over Fido: Custody of Pets in a Divorce

custody of pets
Who will get Fido in the divorce?

When you think of custody battles between divorcing spouses, you might assume their fight is over the children. However, in some  situations, the disagreement between two separating people is not about a human child, but instead a fur baby. That’s right, their pets.

Just as parents fight for time with their children, pet parents demand their wishes to be considered when it comes to their pet’s living arrangements after a relationship heads south. Therefore, if you are separating from your spouse, you need to know your rights when it comes to custody of pets, because you don’t want to go barking up the wrong tree (ugh…sorry, had to do it).

Pets Aren’t People

As much as you feel they are, your pet isn’t actually seen by the law as a human being. This may seem shocking to you super-enthusiastic pet owners out there. Sure, your cats are cute, and you may even dress up your dog in a sweater, but animals are viewed as property according to Massachusetts law. Therefore, when it comes to a disagreement over who gets your pet, the legal arena looks at from the perspective of a possession. In other words, as sad as it seems, your dog is considered the same as a lamp or a lawnmower during a divorce proceeding. No more important, but no less. This may not seem like a purrrrfect approach (sorry, did it again), but that’s how things work.

However, don’t lose hope, because you do have rights over possessions, so you can still use the law to your advantage to demand time with your beloved pet. Therefore, although you might not be able to ascertain “custody,” you can certainly try to maintain ownership of your precious fur child, and negotiate other workable solutions – such as each party having time with a pet and/or contributing to pet-related expenses.

Buyers Keepers, Losers Weepers

A judge may determine who gets ownership of a pet based on who originally purchased the pet. In addition, consideration may be given to who has paid veterinarian and grooming bills, along with who has bought the pet’s food, medicine, tags, collars, and treats.  Of course, this may not be a helpful approach if a couple used joint funds to support the animal, or purchased it together.

If the spouse who wants the dog isn’t the one who paid for all their care, they can still be awarded ownership of the dog. However, the judge might order them to reimburse the spouse who isn’t getting ownership of the dog for the investment they have put forth into the animal’s well being.

Your Actions Matter

In addition to looking at who financially takes care of the animal, a judge might also consider who spends time and cares with the pet. Who walks the dog, who bathes it, who is the animal most attached to? The answer to these questions will tell a great deal about who the rightful primary owner of the dog should be.  Other factors include whether the animal was obtained to a pet that the children would help care for and spend time with.  If so, then should the pet stay with the children?  Otherwise, given the other transitions involved in divorce, not seeing a family pet can also be difficult on kids.

Consider Who Has The Dog Now

The old saying about possession being nine tenths of the law can come into play here. A judge might look at who is currently in possession of the pet when making his or her ruling – although hopefully things will not get to that point and you and your spouse will work this issue out through divorce mediation or with the assistance of your divorce lawyers. Also, if one spouse had the pet before the relationship began, the person who owned the dog prior to the relationship will most likely retain possession of the animal.

Don’t be Afraid to Present a Compromise

Remember that only a small percentage of Massachusetts divorce cases end up in a trial.  In the vast majority of situations, parties reach a full settlement before a Judge has to decide such things.  Working with a mediator for example, can help you reach a workable compromise in an atmosphere conducive to helpful communications, and reach a creative solution for you and your spouse. A judge may not set up a typical visitation schedule for you and your pet(s) and the court has limited time for such things,  but you and your significant (human) other can absolutely agree to share time with your pet or pets, and include this in your divorce agreement.

Remember that your living arrangements may change during separation and post-divorce, so consider whether you will be able to keep your two Huskies with you in a small apartment.

Although your pet may be a huge part of your life and you love them with your whole heart, they are just another type of personal property from the legal perspective. Over the years, we have helped couples sort through issues related to dogs, cats, snakes, chickens, fish, hamsters, guinea pigs, a regular pig, horses, llama, and even a lizard.  In all of these cases, the parties were able to reach an agreement on what is best for the the animal and the family.  Chances are, you will be able to reach a workable solution as well.

Contact us today and let us help you as you determine who gets ownership of your most precious possession, your pet.

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