Who Gets the Pets in a Divorce?

By: Wendi Schuller
: January 17, 2018

Who gets the pets? Here's what to consider when faced with this difficult decision.

A tricky part of divorce can be who gets the cat or dog. This is not about a race horse whose value may be counted as an asset. Millions of dollars in assets have been divided, yet couples nearly came to blows over the pets, according to my divorce attorney. She stated this emotional issue has slowed down divorce proceedings in some of her cases. Couples in hectic careers may have put off having children or decided not to have any at all. Particularly in these instances, animals can have a more central role in the couple’s lives.

Five Questions to Help you Decide Who Gets the Pets in a Divorce:

  1. Is one of you going to stay in the family house that has the dog run or fenced back yard and the other is moving to a small apartment?
  2. Does your dog or cat have animal buddies in the neighborhood?
  3. Is one spouse moving abroad after the divorce? Quarantine and local regulations may make it challenging to bring family pets.
  4. Who is the primary caretaker? Who takes the pets to the vet, buys food and supplies, walks the dogs or cleans the kitty litter box, and generally spends the most time with your pets? 
  5. Can you put your own feelings aside and think about what is really in your pet's best interest? Try to look at this situation from the pet’s point of view. 

What the Law Says about Who Gets the Pets

If you are deadlocked about who gets the pets, you may have to go to court and ask a judge to decide. In most places, the law treats pets as personal possessions – like a chair or a TV – and pets are considered the separate property of the person who owned them before marriage. So generally speaking, if one spouse owned the pet before the marriage, that pet will go to them in a divorce. 

However, the court may also look at lifestyles in determining pet "custody". When one spouse travels nearly half of the month for a job or has very long commutes, and the other one works from or close to home, then this could be a factor for who gets the dog.

If one parent is getting physical custody of the little humans, then the pets may be awarded to them as well. 

Creative Solutions to the Problem of Who Gets the Pets in a Divorce

Flexibility and creativity are useful tools for working out this dilemma. One woman got the two dogs after a breakup. She travels a lot for work and requires a pet sitter. Guess who that is – yes, it is her ex. He is happy seeing the dogs periodically and she goes away reassured that her canine kids will get loving care. Some former couples decide that the children and the dog are a unit and they go together back and forth between parental homes. The children enjoy having the dog go with them, and neither parent has to terminate their relationship with the furry family member.

Look at your motivation for wanting the pet. Some people may fight for custody more out of retaliation than affection. If you sense that your spouse is doing this, perhaps give a little more and let them have an extra painting or some other asset in exchange for the pet. If you offer something your ex wants as much as you want the pet, that could end the battle in a win-win.

If you and your ex-spouse are not able to come to an agreement, consider hiring a mediator for this aspect of your divorce. They may help you both come up with an arrangement that is not all-or-nothing in terms of custody. My husband and I had to have a custody evaluator decide what was best for our children. Our attorneys had us sign an agreement to abide by whatever her custody decision would be. Something along these lines could be done for pet custody when there is a battle over them.

If You Don't Get the Pet...

Whoever gives up the pet in divorce will have a gaping hole in their hearts and lives. They will go through the grief process for this traumatic loss. If this is you, give yourself time to mourn and, if feeling stuck, consider talking to a divorce or life coach. Nurture yourself and vent to friends. Get out of the house to do some pleasurable pursuits, even if just walking around a park and soaking up the benefits of being in nature.

Give yourself some time to get over this loss before adopting another pet. Shelters and rescue groups are looking for kind-hearted people to provide temporary foster homes for animals waiting to be adopted. Volunteering with animal non-profits is another way to get your animal fix. One of my friends volunteers at the London Zoo, and I feed and take care of kitties weekly for a cat rescue group. Whether you lose a beloved animal friend through divorce or death, the pain does diminish in time.