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Family Pets Are Personal Property in Divorce

Clarkston Legal Aug. 5, 2016

Pets are considered property in divorce, to be divided in the settlement agreement. If the parties do not agree on how the family pets are to be divided, family court judges take into account a variety of factors to make this difficult decision.

A divorce industry group noted in a 2014 survey an increase in the incidents of recorded pet custody disputes. Sometimes such disputes are strategic, with one spouse hoping to gain a concession in another area in exchange for capitulating on the family pet; other cases reflect the difficulty of disposing of a pet like a piece of chattel.

When faced with such gut wrenching decisions, a family court judge has many things to consider, such as:

  • If the judge deciding the case is an animal-lover, the “best interests” of the pet will factor into the decision, analogous to child custody and parenting time disputes;

  • Does one spouse have a stronger emotional bond with the pet;

  • If the family has pet adoption paperwork or a thoroughbred designation, the court may consider the spouse whose name appears on the documents to have the edge;

  • The judge could consider which spouse has the better living arrangement, work schedule, or means to care for the pet;

  • Frequent travel is not optimal for the pet;

  • Has one spouse ever been abusive toward the pet;

  • The party that has physical custody of the minor children may have an advantage relative to the pet;

  • A prenuptial agreement may address the ownership rights of pets that either spouse had prior to the nuptials.

Believe it or not, the Michigan Legislature proposed legislation a few years ago that would require divorcing parties to file a pet custody agreement with the family court. If the parties could not agree, then the judge would make the decision.

One controversial proposal debated in the legislative process included sending the family pet to the Michigan Humane Society whenever the parties could not agree on “custody” or ownership. Fortunately, these bills went nowhere and have since stalled.

Family court judges must equitably divide property. Thus, each case is susceptible to a broad range of outcomes. Often, the judge’s world-view drives the bus. Fortunately, families going through a divorce often find sufficient common ground to resolve these disputes.

Here is an additional article on the subject published two years ago in Forbes.

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If your divorce involves a property dispute over the family pet, contact our law firm to discuss your options.