Jane-Ashley McMillan, Attorney at Law

What happens when pet parents split?

For most pet owners, your animal feels like a member of the family. So, if you and your spouse are discussing divorce, you may expect the courts to treat your pet similarly to a child custody matter.

However, pets are handled more similarly to your furniture than a child. Here’s how divorce works when exes share a pet.

Is the pet mine if I bought it?

Determining pet ownership is less about who bought the animal and more about when the animal was purchased. This is because pets are considered property by law. With any of your property — including the pet — your ex-spouse is only entitled to it if it was purchased following your marriage.

So, if you purchased your pet prior to getting married to your ex, there will be no negotiations. The pet belongs to you as your separate property unless you choose to give it to your ex as a gift outside of property division.

Who will get the pet if it was purchased after we married?

If the animal was purchased following your marriage to your ex, it is considered shared property between you and your ex. Property division works by separating all shared property between ex-spouses so that each ex-spouse has a fair share.

Your pet will likely be judged by its monetary value during property division, meaning if your pet’s value is $500, your ex-spouse could take a piece of shared property equal in value in exchange. Sometimes ex-spouses do not split shared property 50/50. If one spouse has a significantly higher income, he or she may be entitled to a larger share.

Can I increase my chances of getting the pet?

If your pet belongs to your ex as separate property (it was purchased by your ex prior to the marriage), you cannot secure ownership of the animal. However, if the animal is considered shared property and both of you want it, you may be able to prove to the courts that you are the better choice.

The courts can consider the following to determine the better person to give the animal to:

  • Who pays for the animal’s expenses (cost of the animal, food, grooming, veterinary visits, dog-walking services, etc.)
  • Who cares for the animal's needs (food and water, exercise, grooming, training etc.)
  • Who is most able to continue to provide for the cost and care of the animal

Can we share ownership of the pet after divorce?

Legally, no. Because your pet is considered property, it either belongs to one spouse as their separate property or (if the pet was purchased after the marriage) it will be allocated to a spouse during property division.

Whoever gets the pet through property division may choose to create a visitation schedule with their ex. However, this arrangement would not be legally enforceable through your divorce judgment.

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