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How do Courts View Family Pets in the Divorce Process?

Divorce, even when planned and agreed upon, triggers large and upending changes that alter a family’s life. Pets are an integral part of many families in this country, and can also suffer the devastating effects of splitting households. The whole family — parents and children — frequently become strongly attached to a pet and have a difficult time contemplating, and then adhering to, relinquishing possession and care to one party. In fact, fights over family pets can become quite heated in certain households and become a central aspect of the couple’s divorce. While pets are not placed on the same level as people in any legal context, they are still living beings and some arrangement should be made to ensure that proper care is provided.

For the vast majority of pet owners, there is no question that the animal’s welfare will be accounted for in some capacity, but this consideration is not always present, unfortunately. Indiana prosecutors recently charged a couple in the middle of a divorce with animal cruelty after leaving their dog to starve when both moved out of the family home after divorce papers were filed. This type of treatment toward pets is thankfully the exception, but it does raise the question of what happens to the family pet during divorce. This issue will be explored below.

How the Law Views Pets

While many couples view pets as members of the family and cannot bear the thought of being apart, the law does not treat pets in the same way. Under Indiana law (though a few states are changing their rules), animals are viewed as personal property, and judges will not get involved with putting together an agreement to share custody and care, as they would for children. Thus, the most likely scenario that will result from asking a judge to rule on this issue is the award of the pet to one spouse, with the other spouse receiving no reciprocal rights. However, this tendency does not mean judges cannot be flexible and allow each spouse to keep the property half of each month. Furthermore, given the nature of a pet, a court will consider issues, similar to the following, in order to make a fair decision:

  • Which spouse provides most of the pet care, and which has the time to maintain a regular feeding schedule for food, provide exercise, groom the animal, etc.;
  • Who is normally in charge of taking the animal to vet; and
  • Who is financially able to pay for the animal’s care.

Settling the Issue

Even though courts will get involved in pet disputes during divorce, it is always better if the couple tries to work out a custody agreement. No court will fully understand the dynamics of the pet in the family, and litigating this issue will cost a lot of time and money. If children are involved, it is even more important to find an amicable solution for their sake. The best option may be keeping the animal with them when they stay with each parent, as children tend to have particularly strong attachments to pets. One way to address this issue in advance and entirely avoid the need to argue over how the animal will be cared for post-divorce is to execute a prenuptial agreement that includes provisions on this issue. Working with a divorce and family law attorney to understand and craft a compromise that will work is the most effective way of finding a solution to the pet question.

Get Legal Advice

Unresolved issues in divorce can greatly complicate moving through the process, and while litigation is sometimes necessary, most disputes can be resolved through negotiation or mediation. If you have questions about your divorce, talk to Christopher L. Arrington, P.C. about your options. Do not assume a judge has to make all the decisions. Call the Avon divorce and family law firm today to schedule an appointment.

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