Choosing who keeps a pet after a divorce has become a more common issue as pets become members of the family, rather than just additional beings that happen to be in the house. Sometimes the decision is clear because the pet was bought and cared for specifically by one spouse.
However, when both spouses want the pet, or worse, when one spouse realizes the other desperately wants the pet, negotiations can heat up. Pets are considered property in most states, including Washington. Therefore, unlike with a human child, the court does not take the pet’s best interest into consideration.
Options do exist for choosing which spouse a pet stays with, though the state of the relationship between the divorcing spouses can be a factor in choosing the most appropriate living situation.
If both spouses are on relatively good terms and live close to one another, it may be best to work out a custody agreement for the pet. This allows the pet to spend time with both pet parents – which can be good for the wellbeing of the pet – and lets both pet parents have their time with the pet. These agreements do not have the same legal restrictions and protections as child custody agreements. Any specifics have to be written into the agreement itself and renegotiated should one spouse want to change the agreement.
If shared custody isn’t an option, either due to distance or disdain for one another, having one spouse pay the other for the pet is a possibility. This can become a dangerous proposition, though, if the spouse demanding payment decides to use the pet as a form of extortion. These payment amounts sometimes reach five figures, so they are not to be taken lightly.
While prenuptial agreements are growing in popularity, most marrying couples don’t think to include pet custody terms in this document. However, this agreement can be extremely flexible to your unique partnership. It can lay out what happens to any pets obtained during your relationship – in addition to addressing any other issues of importance to you, such as property division or debt inheritance.
If you’re already married, it will be too late to get a prenup. However, a postnuptial agreement can serve the same purpose.
If you are facing the loss of your pet due to divorce, consider seeking legal advice from skilled attorneys who have dealt with pet custody before. There are many complex issues that go into deciding what to do with a pet. Having this legal help can make the process more straightforward.