One of the most common divorce questions is, “Who gets the kids?” But more and more couples are starting to fight over who will get to keep the family dog. And it’s no wonder. It’s estimated that more than sixty-three percent or 71.1 million U.S. households own pets and more than 44 million of those pets are dogs.
Dogs have also become more important to couples as fewer couples have chosen to have children. Money that would have been spent on kids is now lavished on dogs and cats. Once upon a time, pet owners would have simply put their pets down if they needed a knee replacement or treatment for cancer. Now pet owners are spending thousands of dollars to keep Fido alive and well.
But what happens if the couples decides to divorce, and there will not be a happily ever after for Fido?
What will happen to my dog in the divorce?
With the increased importance of the family pets courts are now being asked to determine who gets to keep the family dog.
Historically, dogs and other pets have been treated much like any other marital asset which could be awarded pursuant to dictates of a state’s equitable distribution statutes. While there has been some increased pressure on the courts to decide pet custody issues by considering what is best for the animal rather than treating them like another appliance, courts remain determined not to become too involved with issues relating to custody.
Specifically, courts continue to argue that “Determinations as to custody and visitation [of pets] leads to continuing enforcement and supervision problems. … Our courts are overwhelmed with the supervision of custody, visitation, and support matters related to the … protection of our children. We cannot undertake the same responsibility as to animals.”
Judges, however, who do decide to consider the best interest of the pet will evaluate several factors using a decision making process similar to that used for child custody. For example, the court may consider who the primary caregiver was prior to the divorce, whether one spouse owned the pet prior to the marriage, and who fed and walked the dog.
Courts avoid dog custody battles
Assuming the court does allow a day in court to decide who may be best suited to care for the dog, do not expect visitation rights to be established. With this in mind, if you and your spouse want to avoid a winner-takes-all approach to deciding who gets to keep the dog you may want to consider creating your own custody agreement.
If you and your spouse can agree on a custody agreement you may get to remain active participants in the dog’s life. This option may be preferable to one party never seeing the dog again.
What is in the best interest of the dog?
Assuming the dog is not simply a symbol of power and control and you are really concerned about the best interest of the dog, you may want to consider the following issues when deciding custodial arrangements.
- Determine who is best able to care for the dog.
- Consider whether keeping the pet with children at the family home is best.
- Consider whether you have time to play and walk the dog.
- Consider keeping your dogs together (if there is more than one).
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