Dog House Design Inspirations

Your relationship has been going great and now you have both decided a pet would be a perfect addition to your family. Then the unthinkable happens—a divorce or breakup. What happens to your pet? Unfortunately, that family member so loved and cared about may now only be legally seen as property, nearly the same as a car or TV.

This can be one more bone of contention in what can already be a messy situation, or it could be a moment of mutual agreement as you both take your pet’s needs into consideration ahead of your own. Unless you think about the possibility in advance, however, you may be leaving it up to a court to decide who gets your furry, finned, or feathered friend.

What does a court consider in determining the custody of a pet?

If the couple is married, it depends on the type of pet and the overall number of pets in the home, said John Slowiaczek, president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (AAML).

“The key factor will always be who provides the primary care for the pet—walking, grooming, taking to the veterinarian,” Slowiaczek said. “Something else that might be a determination could be who the animal associates to as its primary companion in the home. If...


Your relationship has been going great and now you have both decided a pet would be a perfect addition to your family. Then the unthinkable happens—a divorce or breakup. What happens to your pet? Unfortunately, that family member so loved and cared about may now only be legally seen as property, nearly the same as a car or TV.

This can be one more bone of contention in what can already be a messy situation, or it could be a moment of mutual agreement as you both take your pet’s needs into consideration ahead of your own. Unless you think about the possibility in advance, however, you may be leaving it up to a court to decide who gets your furry, finned, or feathered friend.

What does a court consider in determining the custody of a pet?

If the couple is married, it depends on the type of pet and the overall number of pets in the home, said John Slowiaczek, president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (AAML).

“The key factor will always be who provides the primary care for the pet—walking, grooming, taking to the veterinarian,” Slowiaczek said. “Something else that might be a determination could be who the animal associates to as its primary companion in the home. If both people are equally attached in these areas, the judge could ultimately say they have to share the pet.”

What if you owned the pet before you got married? Slowiaczek said you need to identify the pet as an asset.

Does it make a difference to the court if a couple is not married?

“A greater determination will be placed on who had initially purchase the animal,’ Slowiaczek said. “If you are not married, you typically won’t have a claim unless you were the one who paid for the pet.”

Christine Garcia, an attorney with The Animal Law Office, said she has seen a wide range of scenarios when couples with pets split. At one end, there is bitterness and a desire for revenge. At the other, there are two loving pet owners who want what is best for their pet. But even for those in the latter group, problems can arise when one partner starts a new relationship and any verbal agreement about the pet comes into question.

Even though no one thinks they are going to split up, it’s a good idea to have something in writing—and the more specific you can make it, the better, Garcia said. If you never need it, that’s great. And if you do, it’s all there.

For those who want to protect their ownership of the pet for legal purposes, it is important to include their name on the pet’s license with the local governing agency, adoption papers, microchip, and veterinary records.

A showing of financial responsibility helps, too. Showing payments for the veterinarian, boarding facilities, or other pet-related expenses can help establish ownership. A pet owner can also show their active participation in a pet’s life through statements from neighbors or others who can testify to the person’s interactions and daily routine with the pet.

But life—and pet custody—are never all black and white. According to the National Link Coalition, at least one state has taken a pioneering step in taking other facts into consideration.

Last fall, Alaska Governor Bill Walker signed into law HB 147, which took effect on January 17, 2017. Among its provisions are that Alaska courts can consider the wellbeing of animals or joint ownership by a couple as part of divorce proceedings. A provision long-established in child custody cases, it is believed to be the first time the concept has been extended to pets as well.

That law also allows domestic violence protective orders to grant petitioners possession of a pet, regardless of ownership. Alaska joins 30 other states, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, with Pet Protection Order provisions.

The bottom line: Think about what is best for your pet. If you are going through a split, find out if there are dispute resolution options available. Mediation or arbitration could give you the chance to provide the information needed for the best placement of your pet.

Maureen Blaney Flietner is a freelance writer, photographer, and illustrator living in rural northeast Wisconsin. She and her husband have shared the daily care, fun, and countless bills for their horses, dogs, and cats over many years. 


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