Given the love and attention you and your significant other shower on your pet, it may be inconceivable that either of you would ever do anything not in Fido’s best interest. The idea of your beloved pet used as a bargaining chip in a separation or divorce is laughable… until it happens.
While courts prefer pet ownership issues be kept out of the legal system, more people are fighting for Fido. If the question of ownership does go to court or mediation, judges want to know who bought or came into the relationship with the pet and whose name is on the owner registration. Be forewarned that most courts consider pets “things” versus sentient beings, so they’ll be discussed and bartered over as if they were flatware or grandmother’s china.
To avoid future heartache and legal battles, it’s a good idea to decide now (while everyone is still getting along) how pet custody will be handled should a separation occur.
Ideally, the pet would go with whichever partner he/she is more bonded with. Courts are also more frequently having the pets follow the children, to ease the transition for the kids. However, if both parties are equally serious about maintaining a relationship with the pet, creative solutions come into play. These may include split custody arrangements or visitation rights.
Pre-nups should address issues such as what happens if the caregiver moves into a non-pet friendly building or marries someone with allergies. Consider that the person granted possession of the pet is also typically granted the implicit right to make all decisions for the pet—including whether to deny medical treatment or have the pet put down.
Although conversations about a split can be difficult, it’s much better to address concerns upfront. “Even the smallest issues, if taken to divorce court, are extremely expensive, time-consuming, and unpredictable,” warns Clair.
So what can you do to protect yourself and your pet?
- Put everything in writing. Even if it’s not legally binding, having a written document reminds both parties that at one time they were in agreement about doing what was best for their pet.
- Explore mediation. It’s less costly and time consuming then court.
- Agree whether both parties will have an equal say on major decisions for the health and safety of the pet. Pet insurance can help defer costs.
- Make sure joint ownership or on/off week arrangements aren’t causing your pet undue stress.
- Don’t use pets as leverage.
- Ask who the pet is most attached to? Who is more attached to the pet? Who is able to offer the time and resources to care for the pet? Put aside your wants and determine what’s best for the pet.