Most people view their pets as members of their family, so there is little surprise that deciding “custody” of furry friends can be a contentious issue in breakups and divorce cases. Pet custody issues are common. As mentioned in a recent news article, 27% of split-ups involve deciding pet ownership!
If you are in the process of deciding what’s best for your furry friends, here are some low-conflict tips for constructing a pet custody plan that works for everyone involved – including your pet!
Understand the law and your rights. First up, it is important to know that “pet custody” is not an exact legal concept. In most states, including New Jersey, pets are generally classified as “property.” If you are married spouses getting a divorce, this means that deciding pet ownership technically becomes part of the marital asset division process of your divorce. Your pets may feel like children to you, but in the eyes of the courts, a pet is legally akin to a television or the living room furniture set that must be assigned to one spouse or the other as part of the divorce settlement. Judges typically do not engage requests to create any kind of pet custody plans.
With that said, divorcing couples need to remember that out-of-court settlement options are available and recommended for spouses who wish to have more say over their settlement or need to solve creative issues such as pet custody. If you and your spouse are able to sit down and negotiate or mediate (with the help of your attorneys and/or a mediator), you can work out a plan that details rotating custody of the pet and agreements about splitting vet costs and issues like kenneling or doggie day care. This separate agreement can then be signed off on and included in your divorce settlement. As a signed legal agreement between two parties, it is enforceable.
Unmarried couples have slightly different solutions for post-split pet custody. When unmarried partners acquire a pet together and then ultimately decide to end their relationship, deciding pet custody can become a bit trickier. Married spouses have rights to all property acquired during the marriage, including pets, but unmarried partners do not have these same rights.
In an ideal situation, unmarried partners can come to a written agreement about pet custody and sharing vet costs, and sign and notarize the agreement. If there is disputed ownership, the partners may decide to head to civil small claims court. In court, the partner claiming ownership should be prepared to produce documentation of ownership, which could included signed papers at the time of the pet adoption or purchase in their name only. If these don’t exist, other proof of ownership can include which partner paid the vet bills. Also taken into account could which partner did the larger share of pet care. Was one partner the one who took the dog out for daily walks? This type of care could sway the courts if ownership is disputed.
Are you and your ex on board with working out a pet custody agreement together? You can make the purrrfect plan by considering:
Your pet’s best interests: Just like with children, the most important factor in pet custody should be the well-being of the animal. Consider which household can provide the most suitable living arrangements, such as a safe and secure environment, sufficient space, and access to proper care and attention.
Are you or your ex moving to the big city to live in a high rise apartment? As much as you love your golden retriever or Bullmastiff, this is probably not the ideal living situation for certain types and breeds of pets. If your new living situation is a mismatch for your pet, get creative with your custody agreement. For example, the pet may live with your ex for most of the week, but you get long walks on weekends and time for a game of fetch at the park.
Communication between you and your ex: Just like co-parenting children, co-parenting a pet requires good communication between you and your former spouse/partner. Where and when will you exchange custody of the pet and how will you let each other know if you will be late to the exchange? Who is responsible for taking the pet to their vet check ups? What is your plan for emergencies? Before you start “pet co-parenting,” figure out the communication style that will work for you in these types of situations (i.e., texting no less than an hour before any custody exchange delay).
You might also decide to keep a “pet custody log” that details things like walks, feeding schedule and behavior or health changes while your pet is in each other’s care. You can track this on your own or, if practical, set up a shared iphone Note to keep a running log of your pet’s habits. Legally speaking, maintaining a log of your time with your pet can be important evidence if you do ever need to go to court in the future.
Your willingness to be flexible: If you and your ex-partner or spouse suddenly have a different schedule or living arrangement, or your pet’s health needs change, be prepared that your plan may need to change too. Maybe your pet requires medical treatments. Or you may have gone back to work full-time and neither of you are available during the day. Discuss your flexibility now so that you are prepared for whatever comes your way. In your plan, be sure to include details such as who will be responsible for the pet’s care in an emergency, how vet and other care expenses will be divided, and what happens if one of you wants to change the custody arrangement in the future.
Your pet gives you so much comfort, so consider your pet custody plan a way to return the favor!