Pet ownership is exceedingly common in the United states with nearly 80 million households having dogs, cats, or other pets. Many people think of their pets as members of the family, so if the family is going to be divided by divorce, the issue of what will happen to the family pet becomes a central issue. Washington law considers pets to be personal property, and the decision on what will happen to the pet after a divorce will be decided accordingly.
Because pets occupy such a special place in a family, clients often believe that a court should make a determination for a pet in a similar manner to how a court decides child custody. While most judges are not oblivious to the fact that pets have attachments and emotions, they generally will not create a “custody order” for a pet absent an agreement of the spouses. A pet is property, and a judge will make a decision on who will be awarded the pet. Each spouse will need to present evidence as to the pet’s history and who has generally been responsible for caring for the pet. Evidence such as who takes the pet for medical care, who takes the pet for walks, who grooms the pet, and other similar issues will be presented for the judge to decide who has the superior claim to the animal. Courts are often sensitive to whether the parties have children and if the children share a bond with the animal.
Although courts generally will not create a custody agreement for an animal, that does not mean that spouses cannot work out their own agreement. It is possible for divorcing parties to negotiate an agreement that provides both of them with continued access to the animal. If the spouses wish to have this type of arrangement, they need to also consider ongoing and future issues, such as the cost of veterinary care. Just as in custody cases, the parties may also need to preemptively address the possibility of one of the spouses moving away. Special attention should also be given to the age of your pet and the impact that moving will have on him or her. If one of the spouses is remaining in the house, an elderly pet may be more comfortable remaining in familiar surroundings. In short, you and your spouse should carefully think about your pet and his or her needs when crafting such an agreement.
Pets are often members of the family, and deciding what will happen to them in a divorce is a difficult decision. We have experience in helping our clients to through this complicated issue. Contact our team today at (253) 272-9459 to discuss your pet and its future in your divorce.