Who gets the dog in a divorce: How to handle canine custody issues

Posted by David Hallum on

There is no doubt about it: divorces are emotional and difficult. Nobody plans to have one, and yet statistically they are about as common as staying together is.

dog in a divorce who gets the dog

If you have decided to end the relationship and you are pet parents, this question arises: Who get the dog during a divorce? The answer is that there is no easy answer.

In most states, dogs are considered property. If a dog has been purchased from a breeder or a pet store, and only one spouse is listed as the owner, then that spouse officially can determine if he or she wants to keep the dog.(VirtualAttorney.com) Most courts will not award custody to a spouse not listed as the owner even if there is a demonstrably affectionate relationship with the dog by the other spouse. The reason is that the dog may be able to bring further monetary value to the official owner.

However: a court may listen to a reasonable argument from a spouse who is NOT an official owner. This person may be able to demonstrate that he or she has made a considerable investment towards the dog's well-being: examples of this would be providing documentation of payment of vet bills, insurance, or training, or time taken off from work to provide care for the dog. If there are witnesses, such as workers in a vet office to support this spouse's claim, that can also help. (TheNest.com)

If both spouses are listed as owners, then things can get murkier. Here, there will be a battle via documentation. Who has paid the vet bills? Who has been going to the vet to describe any health problems? Who is the one who walks the dog? Who buys the food? Any and all of this will come up in a dispute.  (Really Good Pets Shop customers can login into their account and retrieve any and all receipts for past orders of dog supplies.  If you did not create an account, email us and we can send you a list of your past orders)

If both parties can show a fairly equal division of payment for vet and food bills as well as time spent with the animal, the courts may look to see which spouse will be able to offer the better living condition for the dog. Is one spouse moving into a small apartment? Will one spouse have to spend more time out of the house working? Will one spouse be further away from the vet or from the dog park? 

In the very ugly situation of physical abuse, courts will more often than not side with the victim if there is proof (i.e. witnesses, medical records, etc) regardless of which spouse is the actual owner. There are times when a spouse will stay with an abuser in order to protect a pet from becoming physically harmed. More states are working to enact legislation to allow domestic abuse shelters to allow dogs as well, or to at least have animal control remove an animal temporarily if a safe place for the dog is not found. (TheNest.com)

Be aware as well that since dogs are considered property, taking a dog away from a spouse who has been awarded custody is considered theft. It is the same as if one party stole the other party's court-awarded fishing equipment or the television: it may be something that spouse loves, but if a court did not award it to them, they have zero rights to it. End of story. The only difference here is that the television does not run to you when you call it, so if there are ever any visitation agreements decided upon between parties, you may want to have them supervised.

Dog being in a pre-nuptial agreement

This brings up an obvious question: can you put a dog in a prenup?

Easy answer: Yes.

Many lawyers recommend that this be done, and it does not even have to be a married couple. Couples that live together without being officially married may still experience rancor while dividing up property. (TheVirtualAttorney.com) Therefore, many attorneys recommend creating a prenup upon the arrival of a new dog in the relationship.

In fact, while it used to seem that only eccentric celebrities had custody disputes over Prada-clad poodles, lawyers are actually seeing an increase in the number of people including pets in their prenuptial agreements. (BostonGlobe) People are taking steps to ensure that their pets' best interests are being met and not being used as cudgels with which to hurt the other person.

Many times, couples that split up will often ask for equal time with the dog in the event of a break up. In this case, there will have to be very carefully written and detailed-oriented custody agreements written up. They will be similar to custody agreements of children: are holidays important? Is traveling to another state an option? Do both parties have to agree upon daycare facilities? Do they have to agree upon the same type of food for the dog? Can you agree upon end-of-life care for the dog? These can be profoundly challenging arrangements, so be prepared to sit down for a long time to discuss them and work out what everyone needs. (BostonGlobe)

Of course, there are trainers who say that joint custody of a dog is unfair to the animal. These trainers state that dogs require consistency and that spouses who split up need to take this into consideration. (BostonGlobe) In the end, only the owners will truly know what is best for the dog. If there is the situation of one spouse clearly being able to provide a better home, it may be for the best that the other spouse relinquish rights to the dog, painful as it is. Ultimately, all people truly want is what is best for their dogs.

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