Pets and Divorce: Property or Custody?

Posted by Steven D. Eversole | Jan 27, 2014 | 0 Comments

Whether you are young and childless, have small children, or are retired, a family pet can be a significant source of stability and companionship. At the time of divorce, losing a pet can also seem overwhelming. What are your rights when it comes to a family pet? How does a court decide who will keep the dog? While you might consider your dog or cat like a child, under the law, the animal is considered property. Knowing your rights could help you protect your rights to an animal during the divorce process.

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According to the National Pet Owners Survey, over 7.1 million American households include a pet. The majority of animals are dogs, but also include cats, birds, and other large animals. Our divorce lawyers in Birminghamunderstand the challenge of dividing property during divorce. We also know that for many families, the division of assets can be more complicated when it involves pets, livestock, or other very important and “live” personal property. Our legal team will provide strategic advocacy and counsel to families who are facing divorce and concerned about protecting their rights to a family pet.

Recent reports indicate that there is a higher incidence of “custody battles” involving family pets. A poll of 1,500 members of the American Academy of Matrimonial lawyers indicated that 25% saw an increase in pet custody issues in the past year. In these cases, a judge has had to determine who gets “custody” of the dog and whether another party has a right to visit the dog even after a marriage ends. State courts have taken different approaches to answer these questions.

In 1995, a Florida trial court's decision to grant visitation to a family dog was overturned. The appellate court determined that the animal was a “pre-marital asset” owned by the ex-husband. In an initial case, the man's wife was granted visits with the dog every other weekend and every other Christmas. Courts seem to following this trend considering family pets as property, not like children that would merit custody or visitation orders.

In short, dogs and other animals are personal property and must be awarded based on state laws of distribution. Alabama is an equitable distribution state, meaning that when parties cannot agree, the property held prior to the marriage will be considered separate. Marital property (property jointly acquired during the marriage) will be divided equitably between the parties.

In some cases, third-party advocates have been asked to submit requests on behalf of the animal, focusing on the best interests of the pet, rather than simply treating it as another piece of property. Identifying the best interests of the animal in a property division case can ensure that the animal is properly cared for after a divorce is finalized.

Pet owners facing divorce should keep in mind that while they will not be going through a drawn-out custody battle over an animal, they can make certain requests to meet their needs and protect the best interests of the animal. A court may consider who spends the most time with the animal, who is responsible for vet visits and costs of care, and who brought the pet into the relationship.

If you are seeking a divorce in Birmingham, contact Family Law Attorney Steven Eversole at (866) 831-5292.

About the Author

Steven D. Eversole

J.D., Samford University's Cumberland School of Law, Birmingham, Alabama B.A., University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, Alabama

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