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What happens to the family pet in a divorce?

Going through a divorce is often a painful process—trying to figure out what your life will look like once your marriage is officially over. And for many pet owners, deciding which spouse will keep the family pet in divorce adds even more emotional heartache to the process.

Pets are mostly treated like property

In nearly all states, including Minnesota, the courts classify family pets as property. So, they are part of the asset and property division each couple works through in a divorce. Sometimes, when the couple has children and they are close to the family pet, the pet stays in the home where full-time or even most of the child custody time has been established.

However, sometimes, spouses end up really having a difficult time determining who will keep a pet after a divorce. When they have no children and the pet has been their “fur baby” for years, figuring out pet custody can get ugly. In these cases, courts look to when the pet became part of the home. If it was before the marriage, who bought the pet? Who has done most of the caregiving for it throughout the marriage? The answers to these questions can decide who ultimately becomes the pet’s owner after a divorce, but judges don’t have to consider these factors.

Three states have pet custody statutes

Yet, in the last two years, courts in California, Illinois and Alaska now treat pets more like people in divorce cases. In these three states, judges legally can grant joint ownership, allowing pets to live part-time at the homes of both their owners. Lawmakers passed the legislation, in part, to avoid splitting up two pets, sending one to each home, or forcing owners to decide who will keep a beloved animal or spurring a costly pet custody battle. The legislation that changed the law regarding pet ownership in divorce also requires the court to evaluate how a custody change will impact a pet’s well-being. That had not been legally required before.

In the future, more states could take California’s, Illinois’ and Alaska’s approach—treating animals more like human beings by formally allowing joint custody of pets in divorce and taking their well-being into the custody equation. That approach may make it easier for divorcing couples who don’t want to sever ties with their pets.

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