A pet is often a special and precious part of the family. When a couple decides to divorce, the question of who gets to keep the family pet can weigh heavily on some couples’ minds. When one person is willing to give up ownership of Fido, the issue can be resolved fairly quickly. If not, the outcome can depend on several factors, including whether or not one spouse owned the pet prior to the marriage. Although we love them, legally, pets are considered personal property and will be divided just the same as your lawnmower, which can be a hard concept for people to accept.
With over 35 combined years of exclusive family law experience, our attorneys are prepared to handle unique situations such as determine who may get to keep a family pet in a divorce. We have been able to creatively design “pet visitation” schedules and we have argued issues surrounding pets to judges when the couples cannot reach an agreement.
How Do Pets Apply to Equitable Distribution During a Divorce?
Legally speaking, individuals hold pets just as they hold any other property. Sometimes, one spouse doesn’t want the pet and then, so long as the other does, things are easy. When both want to be involved with the animal and they are able to come to agreements, the couple can enter into a pet visitation schedule. There can be agreements on how the expenses involving the pet and emergency care of the pet are divided. When kids are involved, it’s not uncommon to see the pet travel with the kids to each parent’s home.
If there is no agreement, it gets more difficult because Judges do not like when the issue of who gets to keep the cat is brought to them. However, in these types of scenarios, the Judge will look at how and when the pet was obtained and, eventually, make a determination of who gets it.
The judge may look at several factors when deciding who should keep a pet during a divorce. For example, if the pet was a gift to one of the spouses, the animal would generally remain with that spouse after the marriage. Alternatively, if there are grounds to believe that one spouse mistreated or harmed the pet, the court may grant the pet to the other party. If you’re moving out of your home and you leave the pet, then there’s a chance the court will simply allow the pet to remain with the person who has been caring for it. It is highly unlikely the Court will make any orders over a situation involving an animal that remains contested during the case unless there is some sort of emergent situation. Unless you can show a true need (like you show horses and need to have the horse to continue with horse shows) or detriment to the issue not being decided (such as one spouse is talking about giving away or selling the animal), then the issue of the pet likely won’t be resolved by the Judge until the end of the case.
Because of the connection people have with their animals, these situations can become emotional, it is important to speak with an attorney from O’Connor Family Law if you need help protecting you rights to your pet.
Getting Custody of a Pet
Currently, Massachusetts does not have specific laws in place regarding obtaining custody of a pet. That said, if the couple can agree upon an arrangement, an attorney can help implement provisions concerning a pet ownership schedule. This agreement also should establish whether one or both parties will be responsible for the costs associated with the animal’s care.
There are also threats often made when one spouse is moving out of the marital home that, if they take the pet with them, the spouse remaining in the home will call the police and have them arrested for theft. Because a pet is joint property until the court decides otherwise, taking your animal with you will not necessarily land you behind bars. However, if the court sees you as taking the animal solely to be vindictive, then the move will not likely work in your favor. If you’re moving out of your home due to your relationship ending, make sure you speak with a family law attorney first so you do not do anything that will hurt your future outcome.
If you have a restraining order placed against you, that changes things slightly. You will likely have to leave Spike at home, and if you go back to get him without a court order, then you can be arrested for violating the restraining order. If you are served with a restraining order, definitely retain an attorney so you don’t mistakenly do anything that will land you in jail.
If you are able to come to agreements over your animal, it is smart to consider whether sole or shared custody is best for the pet following a divorce. For example, if one spouse has minimal space or cannot financially take on the cost of the pet’s food, care, and medical expenses, no matter how much both people love it, it may be best that this animal lives with the other party.
Speak With an Attorney to Discuss How Pet Custody Is Determined Following a Divorce
If you and your former spouse share a pet and have questions about who keeps the pet in a divorce, you should call our firm, O’Connor Family Law. Our experienced attorneys can offer information and guidance that help you make the best decision both for you and the welfare of your pet.