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Even though you may think of your pets as family members and treat them more like children, when it comes to divorce, pet custody is very different. In most places, the law treats pet custody and child custody completely differently.
Broadly that means pets are seen as property … like your TV, patio furniture or other household items. For animal lovers, that can be hard to believe. You might wonder how a judge could possibly see your case that way. But judges are bound by the laws of their jurisdiction. They can’t simply decide to treat your pet similar to a child, even if they do feel sympathetic to your situation.
It means arguing over who gets to take care of the dog is very risky. No one can tell you what a court might decide. So frankly, it’s better for everyone if you and your STBX can reach an agreement outside of court. That is absolutely the best way of ensuring that what happens to your pets is what is going to work for your family.
What Does Pets As Property Mean?
When pets are seen as property, the first issue that needs to be determined is whether they are marital property. If you owned the pet prior to your marriage, you may be able to argue that the animal is your separate property and that’s the end of the discussion.
If the pet was acquired during the marriage, then you’re going to get into questions like:
- who paid for the pet?
- who’s contributed what to the support of the pet?
- what are the economic circumstances of each of you?
Sounds very mathematical and financial, doesn’t it?
What Does Best Interests of Pets Mean?
The approach that is more in line with how most people see their family pets is “best interests.” This is a more nuanced approach. Some states, California, Illinois and Alaska specifically, require this standard now.
Under the best interest approach, factors like the following are taken into consideration:
- the wishes of each “parent”
- the interrelationships between the pet and the parents and with the children
- the mental and physical health of all parties
- the ability of each party to encourage the sharing of love and affection and contact between the pet and the other party
Additional considerations include where the children live, prior caretaking responsibilities, prior financial commitments to the pet and future living arrangements.
Reaching An Agreement Is Best
As a Boulder County divorce mediator, I have to tell you, it’s always better for you and your STBX to reach an agreement about your pet (and everything else to do with your divorce). You can craft terms that cover your specific issues and concerns, and you won’t be spending a ton of money on attorneys for court hearings.
Creating an agreement yourselves is going to reduce the stress and anxiety of conflict for everyone concerned, including your children. And, I would argue, it will contribute to a civil relationship with your STBX which is critical if you are co-parenting.
If you are working with an attorney or mediator, you might suggest to your STBX that you work separately on your pet agreement. This would help manage your expenses, and you can still request your mediator or attorney to add the agreement to your legal divorce papers so that it does become a court order.
What Goes Into An Agreement?
The good news about creating a pet custody agreement is you don’t have to start from scratch. If you’re creating a parenting plan, you could mimic that. Work through each section as it would apply to your pet.
There might be some sections like tax exemptions and phone contact that don’t apply but most of the other sections would. Beyond the basic schedule and vacation coverage, I’d pay particular attention to how to make medical treatment decisions and the sharing of vet expenses.
Denver-based attorney Rich Harris says it’s also important to build in the ability to change the agreement in the future. You might for example, agree to meet annually to review the agreement for any changes that are necessary or desirable considering changes to either yours or your STBX’s living situation and your pet’s health.
Shared custody arrangements where the pet moves between houses work great for dogs. They don’t work so well for other pets either because the pet itself doesn’t do well in two different places, like many cats or because like, fish, it would be very difficult to transport the animal to a different location on a regular basis. For these situations, you’re likely going to be discussing with whom the pet is going to reside and then how the other party can come visit on a regular basis.
You can also find templates available on the internet, like from LegalTemplates for example.
Talk To Your Pet
When we talk about best interests, you also want to consider what that means from the perspective of the pet. You and your STBX likely have your own opinions about what your pet wants. Your children probably do too.
Just as you might ask for your child’s input on an aspect of the parenting arrangement, you can talk to your pet. Yep, that’s what I said. I’ll forgive you if you think this is completely out of character for me but hear me out.
A few of my clients have worked with a pet communicator or psychic to help resolve pet custody questions. It seems like a very Boulder thing to do but it is real. In the cases in which I’ve been involved, it has helped the parties reach an agreement.
A good first step here is for you and your STBX to agree on the choice of professional. Then you can both meet with the psychic together.
If you’ve worked through a pet custody agreement with your now ex, please do share in the comments. If this is a concern for you now, would you use a pet psychic?