pet custody

Dog Days of Summer

After repeatedly throwing a ball and watching my furry friend retrieve it, I thought it might be helpful to talk about pets and divorce. Most of us treat (and spoil) our pets similarly as grandparents do our children. Pets have become an integral part of families over the years. So, what happens to family pets when people choose to divorce? 

According to the 2021-2022 National Pet Owners Survey conducted by the American Pet Products Association (APPA), seventy percent of US households own a pet. Seventy Percent! 

Currently, no state in the country has laws that permit courts to decide pet custody, visitation, or financial support when the pet’s owners decide to get divorced. In the court’s eyes, pets are viewed as personal property. A pet’s care can be decided by a judge similarly to the rest of a couple’s assets and liabilities. In other words, our furry loved ones are treated no differently than the family’s cars, retirement funds, or credit card debts. Suppose the pet owners cannot agree on how to handle owning and caring for the pet outside of legal proceedings; the judge could award full ownership to one party and completely cut off the other party’s ability to see the animal.  

One of the only ways to discuss pet custody, visitation, support, or create a pet “parenting” plan is through mediation.   

Suppose the divorcing couple is interested in an agreement for a shared pet custody plan. In that case, it may be helpful to discuss the following in mediation: 

  • Pet Insurance. Fifteen percent of employers offer pet insurance for their employees. Similarly, to employer-provided health care for children, a discussion about premiums and veterinary co-pays may be discussed. 
  • Custody. Does the pet travel between households? If not, what does it look like to the pet owners for visitation with their pets?  
  • Healthcare. When a veterinarian recommends treatments or vaccines for your pet, what happens if you don’t agree with the recommended treatments? If you agree, how does the provider get paid, and who is responsible for making the payments? 
  • Costs. Food, toys, snacks, beds, leashes, collars, etc. Do these costs need to be divided, and if so, how do they get divided? Furthermore, if you exchange your pet between households, do any of these items also go with the pet?  
  • Children. How do the children get along with the pet? Would the children want the pet at each home during their parenting time? Would this be helpful for consistency for the children?  
  • Doggie Day Care or Boarding. What does the process look like if the pet needs to be watched by a caregiver or needs to be boarded? How do you pick a caregiver? Is it important to have a say about who cares for your pet?  
  • End of life. What happens to your pet when they die? What if it becomes necessary to euthanize your pet? Who will be there? What does this discussion look like?   

These examples are just some of many that can be discussed in mediation. I have had clients successfully have these conversations. They have crafted plans in their Mediated Settlement Agreements that resolved their needs and concerns regarding the family pet. Mediation can be a more humane option discussed between the owners of the pets than putting it in the hands of a judge that, by law, has to consider our furry loved ones as property.