Many fur parents see their pets as like their own children. They take care of them, feed them, and sometimes spoil them more than they would a human child.  Unlike a couple’s children, pets, including dogs, are classified as personal property. Simply put, an object classified as personal property is an object that is subject to ownership and can be assigned a market value.  When a couple breaks up, the ownership of the pets is usually divided along with the other personal property.  Even if your pet means the world to you, the pet may not have a high market value when the court is determining market values and dividing property in a divorce case.  So how does the Court determine ownership of a beloved pet in a divorce action?

Divorce: Pet Custody

Before we even talk about how pet custody works, we have to talk about how personal property is generally divided in a divorce action.  Often, the items in the home are divided by the couple themselves with each going through their home and deciding who gets what items.  For example, the couple may decide that each person gets to keep their clothes and personal items and that one person keeps the bedroom set while the other keeps the living room furniture.  When the couple can’t reach an agreement as to the household items, the Court will often divide the items so that each party is receiving items with a similar overall market value or otherwise compensating the spouse for the difference by looking at the market value of the items.

The problem with pets being personal property is that being awarded money to buy a new pet is not the same as being awarded the beloved family pet.  Further, many animals are bonded to each other, and giving each spouse one of the pets may be seen as unfair to the animals.

Who Gets Pet Custody?

Keeping in mind that pets are legally personal property the same as the couch and the toaster oven, are the Courts able to determine pet ownership like they would for a child custody case?  The answer is often yes, especially if the spouses are able to agree to the terms.

The Courts are increasingly willing to look at a number of factors when determining who should be awarded the family pet and the factors often seem similar to child custody factors.  This can include who is the primary caretaker of the pet, who feeds the pet, and spends time with the animal.  Who takes the pet to the veterinarian and cares for the pet when it is sick? Who is the pet more bonded to?  It can also include an analysis of who has the financial means and living environment appropriate for the pet after the divorce is finalized.  If children are involved, there may be an argument when determining custody of the children that the children should get to keep their beloved animal living with them (or that it is best for the children for the animal to live somewhere else).

If the parties can agree to a visitation schedule with the animal, the Court will generally enforce the terms if someone breaks the agreement.  For example, the parties agree as part of the divorce decree that one spouse gets the animal, but the other has visitation for four hours on Saturdays.  The Court can help enforce the terms if this Saturday visitation is denied.

For a famous case involving a custody dispute of the French bulldog name “Princess Pot Roast” upon the break up of a non-married couple, see the Nebraska case, Zelenka v. Pratte, 300 Neb. 100 (2018).

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