Divorce And Pets

When a married couple divorces, the question of who gets to keep the pets often arises. You may view your dog or cat as a member of the family, but in the eyes of the law, your pet is personal property; they are really no different than the cars, the home, or the TV.

Whereas the laws are designed to protect the best interests of human children in divorce (allowing for shared custody, visitation, and alimony), the laws for pets are intended to benefit the owner instead.


Under the law, pets are considered to be personal property, capable of human ownership and control.  

Courts working under that law only strictly have authority to award a pet to one owner or the other.


To grant shared custody or visitation of the couple’s pets would be exactly the same, in the eyes of the law, as having them trade their television back and forth from one week to the next.​


Sixty-three percent — 71.1 million — of U.S. households own pets, according to the latest National Pet Owners Survey. The bulk of those animals are dogs. We’re beginning to see an increasing number of custody battles involving companion animals. Judges have had to determine not only who gets the dog but whether one party has the right even to see the dog after the marriage breaks up.

Furthermore, the awarding of pet custody and visitation leads to continuing enforcement and supervision problems, and the courts are already overwhelmed with the supervision of custody, visitation, and support matters related to the protection of our children. It would be impossible to undertake the same responsibilities for animals.


Divorcing couples who fight over their pets may be dealing with an underlying issue. An ex who takes his or her former spouse to court repeatedly over pet visitation or paying veterinary bills probably is not as concerned about the dog as he or she is about controlling an ex-wife or ex-husband. It might even be that by threatening to pursue custody of a pet, they are in reality, hoping to obtain something of significant financial value in return for dropping the pet-related demand. It could be called a kind of emotionally -based extortion.

In order to keep your pet, you need to prepare a well-reasoned, factual statement with ample documentation, and make your case to keep your pet. Divorce takes place in a dog-eat-dog world, but remember, judges have pets too. If your husband or wife is blatantly exploiting your emotional bond with a pet to coerce you into giving up something they want, they should be prepared for a judge to call that out for the underhanded tactic it is.


The American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers reports that in recent years, pet custody disputes are reaching courtrooms more and more often. And because pets are becoming such a big part of our lives, some courts are beginning to change this analysis, and are willing to treat pets more like children. To date, this has primarily occurred with dogs.  

Courts have considered the best interest of the pets in determining who gets custody of them. They have also awarded shared custody, visitation, and alimony payments to the owners. If a court is unwilling to do this, owners often work out a contract between themselves instead.

Even if the laws were to change to allow for broader considerations in determining pet custody, there are still unanswered questions (for example, which relationships and which species should qualify for protection). For now, creative arguments from the parties and open-mindedness on the part of judges are just starting to lay the groundwork for future case law. The potential for changes in pet custody laws seems to be at a peak.

If you have questions on preparing yourself for divorce, reach out to me and schedule a free consult, or attend the monthly Second Saturday Workshops.

Tags: divorce planning, pets, custody

This information is not intended to be a substitute for seeking legal advice from an attorney. For legal or tax advice please seek the services of a qualified attorney and/or qualified tax professional.

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Kimberly Surber

Certified Divorce Financial Analyst®

Serving Riverside County, San Diego County


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