What Happens to Family Pets in Divorce?
Divorce impacts every member of the family, and that also includes the pets. Deciding who will have custody of the dog, cat, bird, or other animal can be one of the most emotional issues faced in divorce. While most people view their pets as beloved family members, they are considered property under Missouri law — this means that a court would address them in the same way as things like furniture, vehicles, and other personal property. Although a court is not required to consider a companion animal’s well-being in divorce, spouses are free to work out an agreement between themselves that will address the pet’s best interests.
Who Gets the Family Pets in Divorce?
Missouri applies the doctrine of equitable distribution when it comes to dividing property in divorce. This means that any property acquired during the course of the marriage would be characterized as marital property and divided in a way that is deemed fair to both parties. Property owned by either spouse before the marriage would be considered separate property and remain with the spouse to whom it originally belonged.
Since they are classified as property, a pet that was acquired during the marriage would be subject to Missouri’s equitable distribution laws. If the pet was owned by either spouse before the marriage, it would typically be considered separate property and remain with that spouse. However, it’s important to understand that it’s not always necessary to litigate pet custody in divorce. Spouses can work together to reach an agreement outside of court when it comes to who gets the family pet that is best for everyone in the family — including the pet.
Deciding Pet Custody in Divorce
Pet custody is not treated the same as child custody under Missouri law — and there are no statutes that specifically address who gets to keep the family pet after divorce. Nevertheless, many people think of their pets as they would their children. This is why it’s best for spouses to settle their pet custody disputes outside of court. Doing so allows the parties to reach a creative solution and remain in control of the outcome, rather than let a judge determine the matter.
Typically, there are two options spouses may consider when deciding pet custody in divorce:
- Sole ownership of the pet — Spouses might decide it is best for the pet to remain with the spouse with whom it had a closer attachment. If there are children, parents should also consider their wishes, emotional needs, and the bond they have with the pet. A pet can provide significant comfort to a child who is coping with the changes that divorce can bring.
- Joint ownership of the pet — If spouses are amicable, they might consider joint ownership of the pet. Spouses may create a schedule that splits the time each gets to spend with the pet, depending on where they live. In these cases, spouses should outline how expenses should be shared for veterinary care, grooming, and the pet’s needs. The agreement should also provide guidance as to who would make decisions in the event of a medical emergency.
When negotiating pet custody in divorce, it’s vital to give careful thought to each party’s current and future living arrangements. For instance, if one spouse works from home and the other spends long hours at the office, it might be better for a dog to remain with the spouse who can bring them for walks during the day. The pet’s emotional attachment with each spouse should also be considered — if one spouse served as the pet’s primary caretaker, the pet might be more comfortable living with them.
How Would a Court Determine Pet Custody?
Ideally, spouses will be able to enter into an agreement regarding pet custody rather than litigate the matter in court. In the event spouses cannot reach a settlement regarding pet custody in divorce, a judge would determine the outcome based on Missouri’s equitable distribution laws. A court might also consider the following factors when deciding pet custody in divorce:
- Which spouse acquired the pet
- Which spouse was the pet’s primary caretaker
- Which party was responsible for covering the pet’s expenses
- Whether there was a valid prenuptial or postnuptial agreement in place that addressed pet custody
- How each spouse’s work schedules affect the pet
- Which spouse has suitable housing for the pet after divorce
If you and your spouse share children, a court would also consider their best interests when determining pet custody. Separating a child from their beloved pet can have a devastating emotional impact on a child — and a judge is more likely to award a pet to the parent with whom the children primarily live.
Contact an Experienced Missouri Divorce Attorney
If you are facing a dispute concerning pet custody in divorce, it’s essential to have a knowledgeable attorney by your side who can help ensure the best possible outcome in your case. Divorce and family law attorney Mark A. Wortman provides reliable representation to clients in the greater Kansas City, Missouri area for a broad scope of matrimonial and family law matters, including those involving pets in divorce. To schedule a confidential consultation to learn how he can assist you with your case, please contact him today online or by calling (816) 523-6100.