Who Gets Custody of Pets in a Divorce

By Steven May |

When I was navigating the emotional minefield of divorce, my attorney said something to me that completely changed my perspective, simply because I hadn't considered it before: "In the eyes of the law, marriage is a business contract. Nothing more and nothing less. Love, intimacy and companionship have nothing to do with the legalities of marriage."

I know these words sound harsh, but in the typically black-and-white world of our legal system, harshness comes with the territory.

RELATED: How to Avoid Making Pets a Pawn in a Divorce

Using Your Head Versus Your Heart

Think back to the beginning of a serious relationship or a marriage. Were you driven by fear of it ending badly or by confidence that it would work out? Were you excited by embarking on a shared path with someone you loved or dreading and planning for the inevitable breakup?

Let's face it: When it comes to relationships, we tend to think with our hearts and not our heads. We have no problem requesting an "out" clause in a business contract, but signing a prenuptial agreement? That's a different conversation altogether.

So how do those facts relate to our pets? They relate because of how our pets are viewed in a court of law.

The Law: Pets as Property

Currently, our legal system classifies pets as property right alongside cars and televisions. While it's safe to say that most "pet parents" would disagree and see their companions as true members of the family, that view has no standing in court. That fact becomes very clear to couples battling over assets in divorce court. In that arena, except in cases where cruelty can be shown, it is proof of ownership that almost always determines custody of the family pet.

In determining proof of ownership, a judge will consider the following:

Registration and license: The most likely document to be recognized by the court is the initial registration required for the majority of household pets. That document will have the name of the person who registered the pet with the local authorities and paid the associated licensing fees. Remember, signing your name on a registration form carries weight. The registered owner of a pet is responsible for future licensing and vaccinations, as well as any issues of liability that may arise.

Veterinary records: The court may also consider veterinary medical records. At your pet's first visit to the veterinarian, you will be asked to supply the name of the owner. If you are part of a couple, both parties can be listed as owners. If a pet custody battle takes place, having both names listed will show the court that each party showed an interest in the pet's well-being. From there, the judge will most often look at who paid the majority of the pet's veterinary bills to help determine legal ownership.

Microchip records: Beyond being one of the wisest things a pet parent can do, microchipping also serves as a record of ownership. Just as with veterinary records, both parties can be listed as owners of the pet, which will show an interest in the animal's well-being in the eyes of the court.

Pedigree registries: If a couple has a purebred pet, registering him with the American Kennel Club (AKC) or the Cat Fanciers' Association (CFA) or another recognized organization will show who has legal ownership, and both parties can be listed as owners.

SEE ALSO: 7 Signs You Love Your Pet More Than Your Spouse

Understanding the Gray Area

If you know anyone who has been in a bitter child custody battle, or if you have been in one yourself, you know that a "win at all costs" strategy can develop, with each parent saying or doing whatever is necessary to gain custody. Not surprisingly, this same scenario can play out with pet parents.

While proof of ownership is the "black-and-white" element of pet custody cases, more judges, perhaps pet owners themselves, are now considering "the gray area."

The goal of the court in child custody cases is to act in the best interest of the child. In pet custody cases, when both parties have provided records showing shared involvement, the court will then consider many of the same elements as when determining child custody.

Considerations will include the physical environment that each "parent" would provide for the pet, how much time each parent would have to spend with the animal and the parent's ability to pay for care. Other considerations may include whether or not the parent has a history of drug use, incarceration or domestic violence charges, which may show a propensity to be violent toward a pet as well as the spouse or child.

Another factor that judges look at is the amount of involvement, or lack thereof, that someone has with a pet. If one partner takes on the responsibility of feeding, grooming and exercising the pet and can prove it, that person will typically be viewed as a more committed owner and will be more likely to gain custody. Depending on the state and/or judge, custody may be shared.

In addition to cases of divorce, unmarried couples can wind up in court over custody issues or claims that one partner stole property - in this case, the pet. Whatever the status of the relationship, you need to ensure that you document your ownership of your pet.

Looking at Divorce From the Pet's Perspective

In this article, we have looked at some of the practical methods of proving ownership and commitment should a couple decide to end their relationship with each other but not their pet. But what role does the family pet play in such a situation? Can he or she be emotionally affected by living in an unstable environment? And what is our responsibility to our four-footed friends when our own lives are in a state of transition and turmoil?

In the next article in this series, we'll look at a breakup or divorce from the pet's perspective and learn some tools to help your pet know that, no matter what, he is loved and will be cared for.

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