In America, the relationship between humans and animals has changed dramatically in the past century or so. When the U.S. had a largely rural population, animals were primarily considered property that contributed to a family’s economic success. Over time, dogs and cats have become pets and even beloved members of the family. By one estimate, as many of 65 percent of U.S. households now contain at least one pet.
While the increased status of animals in our lives is largely a positive trend, laws haven’t changed to reflect this new reality. In nearly every state, animals are still considered property, on par with a couch or TV. This can create real problems in divorce when both spouses are willing to fight for custody of a pet, because the legal mechanisms for pet custody simply don’t exist.
In recent years, a handful of states have passed or considered legislation to address pet custody and/or to instruct family law judges to consider the wellbeing of pets in divorce cases. But these changes barely scratch the surface of a much larger problem.
A recent article in Time Magazine told the story of one divorced couple who spent a combined $53,000 in legal fees fighting one another over custody of two dogs. The couple had originally worked out a custody agreement on their own, but one spouse rescinded the agreement when she felt the dogs were not being properly cared for by her ex-husband. After spending all that time and money, they now have an agreement similar to their original one.
If you have pets you can’t live without and are about to go through a divorce, what can you do to avoid this fate? Unfortunately, without pet custody laws in place, there are no guarantees. But you likely do have some options.
If your pets are much more valuable to you than to your spouse, you can prioritize them during discussions about property division. Just let your attorney know they are a high priority that you are willing to trade other “property” for. If you and your spouse are equally insistent about keeping the pets, negotiating a written agreement is probably the safest and least-expensive course of action. If you and your spouse can agree to negotiate in good faith, you may be able to work out a shared custody arrangement and to formalize the agreement in writing.
It’s very likely that pet custody laws will be coming to nearly all states in the near future. But until that happens, seeking custody of your pets may be an uphill battle. In that battle, you could greatly benefit from the help of an experienced family law attorney.