Pet ownership is perhaps more popular now than at any other time in American history. Some estimates have pet ownership rates as high as 65 percent of American households. But pets aren’t just more popular than ever before; they are also more important to their owners. A survey by the American Veterinary Medical Association revealed that 80 percent of pet owners view them as part of the family.
To many adults, pets are nearly as important as children. So what happens when couples who share pets end up getting a divorce? Are there any legal mechanisms for determining pet custody and visitation?
In most of the United States, the answer is no. Under nearly all state laws, pets are regarded as property, no different from a bicycle or a couch. When a couple gets divorced, then, judges are only required to consider issues of legal ownership. If one spouse purchased or adopted the dog, for instance, that spouse would likely be entitled to it in the divorce.
This can create some huge problems for couples who are equally devoted to a family pet. A recent article in Time told the story of a divorced Rhode Island couple who couldn’t reach an informal custody agreement regarding their two dogs. In all, the couple spent a combined $53,000 in legal fees arguing over the animals. They now split custody.
Thankfully, California is one of the few states in the nation with any sort of law addressing the issue of pet custody. Enacted in 2019, that law allows judges to consider the best interest of pets when ruling in divorce cases. It is still not as much care and protection as human children are given (and perhaps rightly so), but it is heads and shoulders above what is currently available in most other states.
If you’ll soon be going through a divorce and are worried about what will become of your non-human family members, the safest course of action is still to reach a negotiated agreement with your ex-spouse regarding custody of the pet(s). This gives you the most control over the outcome. If you cannot reach an agreement, however, your attorney may be able to help you petition the court for a pet custody intervention.