Law Office of David L. Scott

What Happens to Pets When a Couple Divorces?

Know your rights and how to protect your pets if you and your partner split

Tennessee has the eighth highest percentage of dog ownership in the U.S., with over 44% of households having at least one canine as a pet. This says nothing of the many other households that count cats, horses, birds, and other animals among their family members. In many cases, pets are an important part of the family, so when a divorce occurs, it can be incredibly difficult to determine who will care for the pet moving forward. And you wouldn’t be alone. A survey conducted by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers suggests that courts are more frequently considering pet custody cases, with some even counting pets as assets during a divorce.

Pets can easily become a hot-button issue during a divorce, and some spouses may even use them as a means of punishment or to extract other demands. Therefore, it’s important we work together to calmly craft your own strategy before negotiations begin. In the eyes of the court, a pet is personal property even though they may feel like a member of your family. Therefore, if you owned the pet before the marriage, it is often the case that you will retain the pet after the divorce. However, if you brought the pet into your home during the marriage and cannot come to an agreement on who will take the pet moving forward, the court will intervene to decide. They will likely consider evidence as to who has expended the most effort caring for the pet. If you have been the one consistently taking the pet for walks, to the veterinarian, and cleaning up after them, your case for keeping the pet in your custody may be stronger. The court may also consider where your children will be living, if applicable, and whose life is better suited to pet ownership. If one spouse works long hours, while the other works from home, the court may determine it is in the pet’s best interest to stay with the spouse that has more time to care for it.

More frequently, however, courts are instead crafting joint pet custody arrangements. For example, in Pulaski, Tennessee, a couple was sharply divided over the ongoing care of their dog. Demonstrating the strong attachment many have to their pets, the wife wanted the dog to continue to attend bible study with her while the husband enjoyed taking the dog on motorcycle rides. The judge ordered a joint custody arrangement, even including a stipulation that the dog not be forced to wear a helmet on the motorcycle. This amusing story demonstrates some courts’ willingness to consider alternatives for pet ownership when couples are unable to decide themselves. This makes it very important that you consider your pet when developing your comprehensive divorce plan.

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