More than one million people a year go through a divorce; of those one million, one in 20 divorces involves a pet. The main question that a couple must answer when divorcing is who gets what. The custody of children is often a main concern when going through a divorce. Many pet owners see their pets as their children so their main question is who gets to keep the pet.
You never know how a marriage will work out— you might love your spouse now and hate them next year. The laws that govern pet custody in the case of a divorce vary from state to state, but currently pets are almost uniformly considered as property, and statutes typically deal more with ownership rights, rather than the best welfare of the pet. So, in a court of law, pets are initially considered to be personal property, capable of human ownership and control. This means that the court only has the authority to award a pet to one owner or the other. While the law views shared custody or visitation of pets in the same way it would view shared custody of, say, a television, some states (such as Texas, Alaska and Wisconsin) have become more progressive. Realizing the emotional impact of pet ownership, and there is a trend to setting precedent rulings for animal custody, visitation rights, and even post-split, financial support for pets similar to child support.
To avoid the heartbreak of potentially having a pet taken away from them, many pet owners have turned to a prenuptial or postnuptial agreement. Many of you may remember Miley Cyrus and Liam Hemsworth’s $150 million prenuptial agreement; what you might not know is that Miley Cyrus’s main reason for the prenuptial agreement was her six furry babies and her pet pig. Miley was very concerned that if the marriage ended badly, Liam might have decided to retaliate by taking her babies.
Some couples create their own agreements about their pets during and after a divorce so that the ex-spouses can share custody. These agreements often work similarly to shared child custody arrangements. Each agreement for partial or shared pet custody differs from couple to couple; some trade the pet back and forth every other week, others take into consideration the amount of time each person has for the pet during different times, and some just get visitation. One example of how this can work out is Tinsley and Topper Mortimer, who after their divorce decided to share the custody of their two Chihuahuas, Bella and BeBe. The couple switches the two dogs between them every month. The most important aspect of shared custody is establishing a set routine, as routines are vital for the pet’s continued mental health.
Since many couples today move in together prior to making the full step of marriage, a common stage in testing out commitment is acquiring a pet together. How the couple manages the care and rearing of the pet as a “starter” kid can demonstrate how they will manage the more legally complicated and lifelong commitment of children. Couples would be wise to discuss fully the ramifications of ownership and custody of a pet in case they decide to split in the future. Elizabeth Elliott, a Seattle animal law attorney, advises that would-be joint owners of pet should put together a pet prenup, spelling out in writing what they agree to, in case the pet out-survives the length of the relationship. In any event, pet owners should be aware that ownership is usually determined by whichever individual pays for the purchase price or adoption fee at a shelter, so these records can be an important element of animal’s records.