LIFESTYLE

Dog Custody: What to Do With Fido When Things Fall Apart

Dog custody man and woman
John Walton
Written by John Walton

Relationships are one thing that many people want to last forever. They find that one special person that they want to spend the rest of their lives with, and decide to get married. They invest in getting houses together, sharing with each other, and possible even having children. However, nothing is forever and people can change over time. Sometimes that leads to divorce. Many people have gone through these experiences before, and it’s never pleasant for anyone involved.

The biggest problem with divorce is determining who gets what from the marital property. But what many people don’t know is that the issue of pets is not something many people consider. They’re not exactly children, but they’re still living, breathing creatures. So how is dog custody dealt with?

Pets Under the Law

In regards to divorce, the majority of states consider pets to be property and are given to one spouse or the other according to the rules of the state if the couple cannot agree on the distribution of property. The two modes for dividing property are:

  • Community property: all the property of the married couple is gathered and divided into community property or separate property of one spouse. Community property is regarded as any property that was acquired during the marriage and is considered jointly owned by both parties. This does not include gifts or inheritances; these, as well as other kinds of property, are considered separate property and are owned by one spouse alone.
    The law deems all property to be community property until there is evidence presented by either party to show otherwise. Prenuptial agreements, for example, serve as good records for keeping certain property separate from community property.
  • Equitable distribution: in all other states, all assets and earnings acquired during the marriage are divided fairly between the divorcing spouses. Some states may even ask one spouse to include separate property in the settlement agreement in order to make it more equitable.

Which law applies, it depends on the state that you live in or where the divorce is taking place, so be sure to do your research beforehand so that you can understand what you’re getting into.

Man's best friend sad looking

Keep in mind that this does not require a physical division of the property, such as sawing a bed in half. Instead, the court gives each spouse a percentage of the total value of the property. The personal property, assets and debts will be accumulated and each spouse will take that which adds up to his or her percentage.

So where do the pet custody laws apply? Is the Christmas gift of a pet considered separate property, even if the gift was made while the couple was married? There are blurry lines that overlap now and again.

Some courts do recognize that one spouse may have formed a more significant relationship with the pet, and it cannot be so easily replaced or have a value placed on it. That’s why more and more courts have started drawing up custody arrangements when it comes to a divorcing couple’s pet dog. So what is taken into account in determining who should have custody of the family dog?

Buyers Keepers

In general, pets are seen as property, so usually the courts will rule in favor of the person who paid for it. This is more than just the purchase cost; it also includes money that has been paid for food, medical expenses, and general care of the pet. If one spouse hasn’t contributed at all to the upkeep but has been given custody, then they should be prepared to reimburse the other spouse.

Provision of Care

When it comes to getting dog custody, the courts can often examine each case in the same light as children: whoever provided more care and attention should get custody, as a long-standing relationship has been developed.

Dog in the curtroom

The courts want to ensure that the dog will be going to the person who will put in the effort to keep them happy and healthy. They will look at certain evidence such as taking the dog on walks, making vet appointments, and spending time with them on a general basis.

Ownership

Who has current possession of the animal during the divorce proceedings can lead the decision to weigh heavily in that person’s favor. This primarily tells the judge who the primary caregiver is. However, this doesn’t mean that you should steal your pet away from your spouse just to prove that you currently have the animal. The courts will see this as theft and it will rule against you in the divorce proceedings.

Circumstances

The court will take into account the circumstances under which each spouse is living. For example, one person could be moving into an apartment that doesn’t allow dogs; it wouldn’t be a good idea to give this person custody.

Another example is the kind of job each spouse has: a person with a very demanding job who can’t provide sufficient time to the family pet would not be a good choice for giving custody to. Other factors may include:

  • whether the dog belonged to one spouse before the couple was married
  • which party is moving to a new home
  • are there children who are already attached to the dog
  • if there is more than one dog; depending on the attachment the animals have for each other, the courts may rule that they both go to the same person

Don’t try to lie and overestimate how much time you can really dedicate to your dog just so you can have them.

Dog waithing verdict

This helps no one in the end, and if evidence comes to light that your dog is being neglected, then you’re likely to land in more serious legal trouble.

Deciding For Yourself

If you want to avoid having a long dispute through the court system, you can always work out an arrangement beforehand with your spouse as to what should happen to your family pet. What many couples may not realize is that there doesn’t have to be a clear winner and loser when it comes to dog custody.

There is always the option to share custody so that the dog can spend time with both persons, especially if they can’t agree or they’re too invested in their dog to consider ever separating from them.

Visitation rights can be also granted if one person is given full custody so that the relationship can be maintained. That way, the dog can continue to receive love from both parties. It’s all a matter of personal preferences and being willing to adjust one’s way of life to accommodate what will work best for both parties.

Not everything has to be decided for you by the courts; in fact, judges are supportive of those couples who have already decided on certain matters of the divorce before it is taken to court, such as vet appointments, sharing costs on food, and providing playtime to your dog. Not only will this make the separation more amicable between the both of you, but the proceedings will also take a lot less time.

Finally winner of pet custody

Also, take into account both of your schedules and be flexible when it comes to your dog’s behavior. They can sense that something is wrong too, and may act out or have accidents in your new home. They shouldn’t be punished for trying to adjust to these new circumstances.

A divorce can be a difficult time for everyone involved, but that doesn’t mean that those who aren’t involved should have to suffer. It may be difficult at first to see past the pain you’re going through, but it’s all for the best in the end.

Other Kinds of Custody

There are other pet custody laws that exist outside of divorce. Say, for example, that your mother or father has passed away, and they had ownership of a dog. A dispute could arise between you and your siblings as to who should have the family dog. The courts would examine the same circumstances mentioned above (availability, income, time, et cetera) and make a ruling with the dog’s best interests at heart.

Another case of third-party pet custody is when there have been allegations of pet abuse or neglect, and a third party wants to provide protection from the animal. The courts will typically rule in favor of the original owner, but if evidence of neglect or abuse can be provided and proven, then the third party can gain ownership of the dog through the help of local animal care or filing a civil/criminal suit against the dog owner.

Dog home alone

No matter the circumstances under which you are fighting for the custody of your beloved dog, it’s always important to stay calm and collected. Don’t let your emotions take over, despite how difficult the situation may be.

You may end up saying or doing some very hurtful things that you can never take back, and the courts will make note of that and it could be used against you. Instead, focus on what’s best for your family pet, even if your spouse ends up getting dull custody. After all, your dog shouldn’t have to suffer for the decisions you and your partner made that he had no say in.

About the author
John Walton
John Walton

John Walton lives in Somerville, MA, with his two dogs, two sons, and very understanding mate. He is a Certified Pet Dog Trainer, a member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, a mentor trainer for the Animal Behavior College, an AKC Certified CGC Evaluator, and the Training Director for the New England Dog Training Club.

  • Janis Schley

    The court makes a judge based on, inter alia, adoption papers and similar stuff. It makes me a bit disappointed and bitter that things like who is more bonded with the dog, and who pays the vet doesn’t mean anything actually…

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