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A Dog in the Fight: Pets and Divorce

Nearly 68 percent of U.S. households owned pets in 2013, and so it’s only natural that we would turn to our four-legged friends for comfort as a marriage collapses. What happens to man’s best friend during a divorce though?

While we might treat our pets as integral members of the family, most courts consider them to be personal property– similar to a car or diamond necklace. Last year, however, a New York judge filed a landmark custody suit over Joey, a miniature dachshund whose parents were both desperate to keep him. The judge planned to treat Joey like a child by ultimately determining which spouse would best serve his interests, asking questions such as:

Ӣ Who spent more time with the dog on a regular basis?
Ӣ Who financially supported him on a primary basis?
Ӣ Who would now be most able to cater to his needs?

The case was eventually settled out of court, with one spouse surrendering permanent custody to the other, but it could still play a major role in treating pets less like property and more like human beings in the future.

As this case proves, simply raising a claim is often enough to expose which spouse really wants to keep the pet and the issue rarely appears before a judge. Unfortunately, however, some partners will also see the pets as “bargaining chips,” as in a case involving a herd of llamas. The husband had no personal attachment to the animals, but he wanted half of them anyway because he knew how dear they were to his wife and he expected her to sacrifice something else to keep them all together, said Maria Cognett of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers.

In Colorado, the general rule is that pets are property–whether it’s a herd of cattle in our state’s more rural communities, or the doomed goldfish sitting beside you– and should be equally divided as such. In light of that, one thing to consider is letting the pet stay with whomever gets primary custody of the children; that way, they don’t lose a furry friend along with a parent. Alternatively, if you can agree to a pet co-parenting plan with your ex-spouse, make sure the custody is for a significant period of time as animals find it more difficult to adjust to new surroundings and routines than humans. And once the inevitable comes, you may want to share your animal companion’s remains with your ex-spouse as well””just don’t fill the urn with ashes from the fireplace.

Please contact one of our well-informed lawyers if you’re concerned about how divorce might affect one of your beloved pets.