Many people feel their pets are family. We can’t imagine a life without them. Whether it’s a dog, cat or parrot, you may have a long history with the pet. Your children may have grown up with the pet.
So what happens to pets in a divorce? It depends on where you live. Here in Virginia, pets are legally considered property. Instead of assigning custody or visitation of the pets, in most cases, judges will simply focus on the question of who owns it.
This question can generally be answered with evidence. For example, if only one member of the couple registered the pet, that could be strong evidence that that person is the owner. On the other hand, if the pet was a gift, that could be evidence that the recipient is the owner.
In most cases, the couple and their attorneys will negotiate a solution to pet placement in their divorce settlement. If a Virginia judge were asked to decide, however, it would generally be on the basis of ownership.
In other states, pets are treated more like children in divorce
In a growing trend, some states have instituted new laws that give judges more discretion in pet custody. They may be allowed, for example, to take into account which spouse spent the most time caring for the pet, or whether one spouse might be abusive to the animal.
This is important in cases involving domestic violence, where pets are sometimes used for leverage or harmed outright.
In states that have changed their laws, divorcing spouses are often awarded time with their pets rather than ownership of them. Or, a court might order, for example, that the pets always travel with the children, so whenever you have your kids you have Fido and Whiskers, too.
It’s important to understand the law and your options
If there is a reason you need to keep your pets, it is generally possible to arrange for that through negotiation with your spouse. It generally doesn’t have to go before a judge. Your divorce settlement agreement can include factors other than simple ownership, as long as both spouses agree. It is only if you cannot agree that the question would be sent to the judge.
If that happens, your lawyer would gather the evidence and make an argument for ownership.
The important thing is to know there are options available.