How to Prevent or Handle a Pet Custody Dispute

Divorce, Relationships

pet custodyPet owners don’t believe that their darling companion animal is “just” a dog or “just” a cat. Most consider their four-legged (or feathered, or scaled) friends to be members of the family. When disputes over custody arise, the battle is more like fighting over a child than a car.

Disputes over pet custody most commonly occur when a couple, married or unmarried, breaks up and both partners want custody of the animal. If you find yourself in this situation, or want to know how to avoid it, read on.

The Law Views Pets as Property

Laws vary by state when it comes to pets, but the majority see animals as property, no different from a couch or a kitchen appliance. The good news is that more and more courts are taking the surrounding circumstances into account and trying to find a situation that’s best for the animal.

If the issue does arrive in court, many factors come into play to determine who should retain custody of the animal. In general, preference is given to the partner who:

  • Purchased the animal (particularly if it was purchased before the couple married or moved in together).
  • Is responsible for the day-to-day care of the animal, like walking the dog, feeding the fish, or grooming the cat.
  • Pays for the majority of the veterinary bills and health care for the animal.
  • Will have primary custody of the children.
  • Will be in a better situation to take care of an animal (e.g. have a backyard or room inside for the animal).

If you’re after custody, keep these things in mind. Don’t lose heart if you aren’t the one who purchased the pet. Showing that you’re the animal’s main caretaker and that you spend more money on the animal’s health than your partner does will go a long way in helping you win custody. Document the money you spend on the animal, and think about getting eyewitnesses to back up your claim (like a neighbor who sees you walking the dog three times a day, or a veterinarian who will swear that you were the one who brought the animal in for care).

Prevent Pet Custody Disputes: Get it in Writing

A decade or two ago, the idea of drawing up a contract outlining your pet’s future in the event of a breakup would have been laughable. But that’s exactly what a “Pet Custody Agreement” is, and today it’s so common that you can find it as a pre-printed legal form online. Creating such an agreement when you purchase the animal together, move in together, or get married is the best way to protect yourself in the future.

Issues to consider in your Pet Custody Agreement are:

  • Visitation: how often, and for how long
  • “Petimony,” or how much money the other partner should pay for the upkeep (a vital consideration for sick and elderly animals)
  • Restrictions on whether the animal can be sold or given to a third party

The enforceability of such a document isn’t a sure thing, but should you ever split, it will help settle conflicts. A signed agreement between parties is given great weight in court. You can also address the issue in your prenuptial agreement.

If you’re facing divorce, work out an acceptable arrangement with your partner, perhaps with the help of a mediator or lawyer.  When you reach an agreement, put it in the divorce decree. Do not rely on a spoken agreement with your soon-to-be-ex spouse.

Pet Custody Disputes With the Law

Pet custody disputes can also arise between an individual and the law. An aggressive or abused animal can be taken away by animal control officers for the good of the neighborhood or the animal. Check your local ordinances if you find yourself in this situation. The best way to avoid this situation is to keep your animal well-trained and well taken care of; i.e., don’t give the officers any reason to take your pet in the first place.

For more information on pet custody, browse Avvo’s legal advice on pet custody.