Americans love their pets. 65% of households—nearly 80 million—have a pet, and a majority of pet owners consider their pets “family members.” Couples seeking to split are increasingly likely to bring pets into their divorce proceedings, with 88% of such cases involving dogs. Despite the way many people regard their pets, however, courts generally consider pets as a form of personal property, no different than your TV or couch. Disputes over who gets a pet during a divorce, then, boils down to who has a stronger claim of ownership over the animal: who purchased the pet, or who spent how much time and money on veterinary care or food. Additionally, courts may consider the placement of pets as part of determining child custody. Since children are often attached to the family pet, the parent receiving primary custody of the children in a divorce will often receive ownership of the family pet, as well.
If you are thinking about filing for divorce in North Dakota, and you have a pet, consider reaching out to the experienced family law attorneys at O’Keeffe O’Brien Lyson Foss.
In December, a Canadian judge was asked to treat a divorcing couple’s dogs like children and assign visitation rights. He denied the request, saying that a dog “is property, a domesticated animal that is owned,” and has no “familial rights.” Instead, he analogized that ordering visitation for pets would be as absurd as ordering visitation for butter knives, and then accused the couple of wasting judicial resources.
Most people, though, do treat pets differently from silverware. Recent changes to Alaska’s divorce laws reflect a growing recognition that animals are genuinely a part of the family. The bipartisan bill requires judges in Alaska to take “into consideration the well-being of the animal” and further allows for joint custody. The changes are not limited to divorces, either: Pets can now be included in domestic violence protective orders, thus allowing victims of abuse to reclaim their pets and to prevent the abuser from using pets as leverage against their victims.
In the other 49 states, however, divorcing couples are probably better off negotiating how to handle their pets without resorting to court battles. In an amicable split, a shared custody arrangement may work well if the pet is attached to both parties and can put up with the stress of switching households regularly. In addition to dividing up pet custody, the parties should allocate regular expenses and medical care in the divorce decree, too.
If you must bring the dispute over your pet before a judge, assemble proof of your role as the primary caretaker. Receipts for pet food, medical care, and licenses, for example, establish financial investment in the pet. Document your time spent caring for your pet, such as trips to the vet, grooming, and walking routines. Though some judges may be hostile to the idea of treating pets like children, basic facts about the best interests of a pet can be persuasive in court: If one party travels frequently, or does not have the financial means to care for a pet, then a court is more likely to assign custody to the other party.
Reach out to the divorce attorneys at O’Keeffe O’Brien Lyson Foss or call 701-235-8000 or 877-235-8002 so we can help you negotiate favorable terms or fight for your rights in a divorce proceeding.