When it comes to pets, particularly dogs, people consider them to be a part of the family and are reluctant to part ways during a divorce. As a result, pet visitation clauses have become increasingly common.
The problem is pet visitation clauses often become more trouble than they are worth, particularly when a divorce is a contentious one.
Like caring for marital children, pet visitation necessitates that a couple continues speaking with each other, even when circumstances dictate it best to limit such communications. Similar to dealing with custody issues, pet visitation requires that couples keep an accounting of the money they spend on the pet when the pet is in their care. Food, transportation, doctor appointments, medication, grooming, and boarding, among other unforeseen costs, all must be tallied and shared. That can create ongoing conflict, especially if the couple does not share equally the time they spend with the pet or one party accrues more bills by frequently traveling, necessitating additional boarding charges.
With older children, couples can arrange to meet outside the home for pickup or at an alternate location, limiting the contact with their estranged spouse. If children are old enough, contact can be limited even further by allowing the children to drive to their other parent for visitation. Not so with a pet. Pets are similar to small children in that they are in need of constant supervision to get from Point A to Point B, requiring ongoing interactions between spouses.
Unlike children, pets are deemed marital property under the law. Despite an increase in couples seeking pet visitation agreements, no state has gone so far as to implement legislation dictating custody, visitation, and support for animals. As a consequence, pets are not subject to the same statutory guidelines children are for purposes of calculating child support and visitation. That means agreements delineating financial and custodial responsibilities for pets vary from case to case and can be as restrictive or vague as a couple sees fit, with case law still being developed in this area. Because there is not a lot of precedent; many states have traditionally refused to enforce pet visitation agreements, arguing that judicial resources are for adjudicating child support, visitation, and custody disputes.
Of late, more states are acknowledging pet visitation agreements and are looking to what is in the “best interest” of the pet, the same standard used for children. A significant difference, however, is that pets are unable to communicate as are children of a certain age to weigh in on what they believe is in their best interest. In other states, courts will simply make a de facto determination as to where the best home for the pet is.
Still, in cases where individual ownership is unclear, some courts will examine the circumstances surrounding the pet’s environment, including whether or not there are children in the family, where those children will be living, and the sentimental value of the pet to each of its owners. Courts may also consider which spouse was instrumental in the pet’s adoption, who paid for licenses, chips, and other expenses for the pet, and who was responsible for the pet’s care, including daily feedings, walks, and veterinary appointments.
Even in those situations where a divorce is amicable, the introduction of pet visitation can create hostility where it did not exist before. The question remains, is man’s (or woman's) best friend worth dealing with the person who may have recently become your enemy?