There’s no way to put a scale on how close pets can be to their owners. Most often, pets are members of the family, cared for and loved like children. So it follows that things can get a bit rough when you’re deciding what’s going to happen to Fido. Here’s the short and dirty about pets and divorce.
1. Pets are property, not people
Your pets, as much as they are members of the family, are seen as property by the Washington courts (this varies from state to state, although categorizing them as property is the most common). This means during your divorce, they’ll be put in the “assets” category. If you bought the pet before you were married, it’s yours. If you got the pet during your marriage, it’s considered a “community asset”. That means, by default, both parties have a right to it. If you leave the decision up to a judge, they’ll be looking at who is most responsible for the care of the pet, or “maintenance of the asset.” This is especially true for high-value pets, such as horses.
2. If you’ve got kids, the pet goes with them
Keeping the pet with the kids should be an obvious solution, because it will be for a judge. This is pretty much the default ruling in instances where couples can’t decide who gets the pet. It makes sense. If you’ve got kids, the divorce is going to be hard for them. It would be even harder if they lost their best animal friend. If you’re not the primary care giver, your kids can bring the dog with them during visitation (this is harder to pull off with a cat, bird, or exotic animal, not for legal reasons; these pets often do not travel well).
3. The more invested party gets the pet
It’s all about “maintenance of the asset,” which basically boils down to, “How much time and money have you put into your pet?” Keep records on purchases for the pet: food, vet bills, trips to obedience school, etc. Your housing situation can also be important. Do you have a yard for your dog to run in, or a stable near large open space for horses? For cats, housing won’t be as important. In order to be awarded the pet in court, you have to prove you’re the most invested party. Don’t forget to make sure your attorney knows keeping the pet is a top priority.
4. Visitation, or splitting ownership of the pet, is totally possible
Patrick, a local Washington resident, splits the care of his English Boxer, Ronan, with his ex-wife. They decided to do this on their own, without getting the courts involved. According to Patrick, this arrangement works out great (not to mention it was a lot cheaper than filing legal papers). Ronan was 8 weeks old when they got him, and two years old when they divorced. Fiona, his ex-wife, stayed in their former rural home, which she owned. There was a huge yard for Ronan, and Fiona was often home for work. Patrick moved into in an urban area, and was working in an office.
“It was an easy decision,” says Patrick. “I get Ronan for a weekend, or a week about once a month,” mostly when Fiona is traveling, which she does frequently.
If you can’t work it out with your spouse, documents for a split-parenting plan can be drafted up. Typically, they aren’t legally binding, but signify an agreement between both parties. In more extreme situations, such as in instances of abuse, investigators can be hired, or a guardian at litem can be appointed to your pet.
5. Fido might just be the one thing you agree about
“I’ve been in family law for 6 years as a paralegal, and pets have only been an issue twice,” says Syndi, a paralegal for Divorce Lawyers for Men.
Chances are, deciding what happens with your pet’s will be easy, as long as you’re keeping the pet’s best interest in mind. Maybe you work from home and can spend more time with the animal. Or maybe your spouse has a more active lifestyle that better suits your pet. Whatever the case, make sure to keep the well-being of your pet at the forefront of your decision. Ask yourself, “What’s best for them?” You might find it’s the one thing you and your spouse can easily agree about.