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Who Gets to Keep Pets in a Divorce?


My favorite child has 4 legs and floppy ears (my son doesn’t read this blog but if he did he wouldn’t be surprised). 

Most people that have pets are very bonded with them and the thought of losing the pet in a divorce is unimaginable. With increasing numbers of couples marrying and not having children, this can become a very real issue.

So, how is the ownership/custody of a pet handled when people get divorced? That depends on what state you are in. California and Illinois and several other states have statutes that can help a judge to determine what pet parent the dog or cat (or horse, snake, ferret) resides with after the finalization of a dissolution of marriage. Other states (like Missouri) not so much.

Pet Parent Custody

I have represented people that had a dispute over which pet parent got the dog. Unfortunately, the judge (as is the case with most judges in Missouri) told us that “dogs are property” and flat out refused to deal with it. The dog might as well have been a TV, or a dining room set.  Most of us are far more emotionally attached to our dog than to our TV. So what do you do?

What happens is that these are issues that have to get worked out between the parties, and potentially their lawyers. I have found that settlement of this issue is easiest if there are children involved. The animal often will just move from house to house with the kids. The parents usually make an agreement to share equal responsibility for vet costs, grooming and other animal expenses.

It is the childless couples where there is the most disagreement, as the animal may be their “child”. In those situations, a “custody schedule” can be negotiated and put in writing as a part of a settlement agreement. This may have specific times that the pet is with each party, as well as provisions for pickup and dropoff of the pet and whether the pet will stay with the other parent if one is out of town. Other important provisions might be included as well, such as boarding and vet care decisions, and how it will be handled if euthanasia is necessary.  Allocation of expenses is also spelled out.

Pet Custody Challenges

If you do decide to enter into one of these types of agreements, be aware that it is likely going to be very difficult to enforce if one side does not hold up their end of the deal. If your former spouse decides not to give you the dog on your “weekend”, don’t plan on going to the police to ask them to knock on your former spouse’s door to get Rover for you. In addition, if you decide you need to file a Motion for Contempt, it is likely that the judge will get somewhat upset and will likely dismiss your motion, possibly even making you pay the attorney fees that your former spouse has incurred.

Every pet situation is unique, contact my office today to discuss your pet/pet parent needs.