In the good old days, when a married couple decided to
split, mom kept the house, the kids, and the family dog. These days, the
division of property and parenting time is no longer black and white. Today,
when there is a dispute as to who gets the house or the furnishings, the court
considers many factors such as, who purchased the item, was the item a gift,
was it inherited, which party is in a better position to maintain or afford it,
etc. The value of the property is generally offset by cash or the division of
other property to make the split equitable (legalese for “fair”). To
illustrate, a court might order that the husband gets the TV and the wife gets
the couch. With regard to dividing the time with the children, if there is a
dispute the courts generally follow guidelines which attempt to assess the
“best interest” (again legalese, but self-explanatory) of the child.
But what happens to Rover?

Courts consider a dog, although a beloved family member,
property. From a legal point of view a dog is no different from the living room
couch. Of course, some families feel that their pet is another child, and in
some cases the only child, which makes the concept of a dog as mere
“property” hard to accept. Yet, the courts usually look at the family
pet as property that needs to be allocated to one party or the other. Only in
extremely unusual cases will a court order a visitation schedule for an animal.
This is because the animal is not a child and state statutes consider a dog to
be property. To determine who should get the dog post-divorce courts look to
see who the dog is registered to, who purchased the dog, to whom the dog was
gifted or to anything else that makes sense under the facts and circumstances
of a particular case. This is the same process the Court uses to divide
furnishings, bank accounts, and the wedding china.

If the parties can agree on a certain visitation schedule it
is likely that a court will enforce that agreement. While a visitation schedule
will allow for both parties to continue spending time with the pet, is such an
arrangement really in everyone’s (including the pet’s) best interest? Are the
strings that come with sharing a pet worth it for anyone involved? Although
Rover is like the child you never had (or more loveable than the one(s) you do
have), he is an animal. Bouncing back and forth between two households does not
provide him with the stability that a domesticated animal needs. Also, a
visitation schedule for a pet is for a very, very long time. There is no age of
majority for a dog. Most people who have decided to live separate lives will
not be able to sustain that sort of relationship with their ex for up to 20
years.

At Zashin & Rich, we have represented many clients who
sought “custody” of the family pet. Determining who the rightful
owner is can be an expensive process. In fact, we have had a committed pet
owner who bought a new vehicle just to transport their dog back and forth.
“Pet custody” cases are different from deciding who gets to keep a
certain piece of property because many emotions come into play; somewhat like
deciding who gets to keep a family heirloom. Parties must look at the cost of
fighting to keep the pet compared to the value of the relationship with that
pet. If a party decides that Rover is priceless, and he/she will pay whatever it
takes to keep him, in legal fees alone Rover may end up being a very expensive
pet indeed.