Divorce and Pets: Who gets Fido?

In California, a judge can determine ownership of a pet animal.

What does this mean?

It means that in a divorce or domestic partnership dissolution, if the parties cannot come to an agreement themselves on who gets ownership of a pet animal, the judge will decide for them—and they can assign sole or joint ownership.

One spouse may get sole custody of the pet.

The court will adopt the best interest standard for the pet, asking questions like the following:

  • Which partner was the primary caretaker of the pet during the relationship?
  • Who lives a residence that allows animals?
  • Will the pet be mistreated if they are with one party or the other?

The answers to these questions can be quite subjective. Therefore, litigation can be frightening because you cannot predict who will win. Further, the judge may order one party to care for the pet during divorce proceedings but assign permanent ownership to the other party after the divorce.

In the case of domestic abuse

A victim of domestic violence can obtain a restraining order that awards them the sole possession, care, and control of their animals. They can also obtain an order that the domestic violence perpetrator must stay away from the animal(s) and refrain from taking, selling, concealing, and attacking the pet.

How can you avoid a dispute over your pet?

  • Consider a prenup or postnup that dictates who gets the family pet in a divorce or domestic partnership dissolution.
  • Negotiate a shared “custodial” arrangement with your ex before the divorce finalizes. Many people would rather share a pet than risk the court awarding their buddy to the other partner.
  • Negotiate how medical bills will be shared and whether one pet parent will need to notify the other prior to obtaining medical treatment or a new vet.
  • Consider an exchange. For example, you might give up a cash asset or take on more than your fair share of debt in exchange for keeping your pet. If pet custody is vital to you, it may be worth giving up an asset that entices your ex.

No family law requires the court to order shared custody of a pet, but that doesn’t mean you can’t agree to get creative with pet custody.

Some clients have agreed to an alternating week situation with each “parent” having the pet 50% of the time. They’ve also agreed to terms whereby they are given a “right of first refusal” for pet care. In other words, if one spouse is going out of town, they will offer custody of the pet to the other spouse first, before choosing a pet sitter or boarding service.

In any case, pets have significant bonds with their owners. The thought of losing a pet in a divorce can sometimes feel extremely emotional and stressful. If you’re concerned about a pet custody issue, consult a legal professional for the best advice.

Should you wish to discuss your pet situation with us in detail, please schedule a free 15-minute consultation.

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