Pets Are the New Kids: Fighting Your Ex for Custody

Crime, Divorce

Most people love their pets, but some love them so much, they can’t bear to be without them in the event of a relationship breakup. Couples who are married or cohabitate with pets are more and more frequently suing for full or joint custody of Fido or Fluffy when the relationship ends, and occasionally it gets ugly.

In fact, pet custody is becoming such an issue these days that entire books have been written on the subject. According to a survey of divorce attorneys, 90% of pet custody cases involve dogs—perhaps because they bond more deeply with their owners than, say, a hamster—but fighting over other kinds of animals happens too.

So how do you ensure that you get equal access to your beloved pooch when you part ways with his other human, and how much does the law support pet custody?

Pets and property

Unlike children, courts treat pets as material property, akin to furniture and cars. Until recently, in fact, most courts would refuse to entertain a custody battle over a dog or cat. Doreen Houseman of New Jersey found that out the hard way when, after sharing custody of their pug, Dexter, with her ex, he suddenly refused to let her see him anymore. A judge refused to hear the case, solving the problem by compensating her monetarily for the value of the dog.

The problem with pets as property is that most of us experience an emotional attachment to them that extends far beyond monetary value. They feel like a member of the family, not an end table or chair. People have spent enormous amounts of time, energy, and money fighting exes over access to beloved pets. Rarely is the loss of a sofa so devastating.

Evolution of pet law

After a 2.5 year legal battle, an appellate court judge finally awarded Houseman partial custody of Dexter, and courts in other states are following suit. Many judges will now take into account things like whether the pet will have to change houses, which person was its primary caretaker, who will be home more frequently, and who can afford veterinary bills and other expenses when determining who gets custody. Although these cases are helping to set a precedent for future pet battles, it’s still hit-or-miss depending on the judge.

Settling out of court

If at all possible, figuring out custody arrangements for pets—especially joint custody—is best done by the splitting parties with the pet’s best interests in mind. One way to ensure shared custody is to include the arrangements for pets in a pre-nuptial agreement. Even if one partner challenges the agreement in the case of an acrimonious split, the courts will have a legal document to rule from. Divorce lawyers, too, are becoming increasingly well-versed in pet custody issues, and can guide clients in terms of how to best determine custody and how to fight for pet-ownership rights in the event of a breakup.

If there is no pre-nup, or if the couple is unmarried or were simply roommates, an extremely common situation in pet custody cases, a judge will usually give ownership to the person in possession of the animal. Alternatively, if one person can show financial records that indicate ownership, they will more often get custody. If you and your co-owner truly love your pets, you will work out just-in-case scenarios well in advance of a split that take into account each pet’s personality, what will happen in the event of an out-of-state move, and how the financial burden will be split. When dealing with animals who are as beloved as children, and courts that may not recognize the important of the pet-human bond, advance planning and documentation should be a priority.