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Who gets the dog in divorce?

Pet owners in the throes of divorce who are clashing over custody of the cat are usually astonished to learn that in the eyes of the law, i.e., their family law judge, pets are viewed as property to be equitably divided and not children for whom custody is awarded.

If you are a devoted pet owner, the concept can be startling, even more so when vengeful spouses can lash out using the beloved pet as bait. A spouse who barely interacted with the family dog, for instance, may suddenly make a big play to keep him simply to cause heartbreak for the other spouse.

Enlightened judges beginning to change

Because some courts and mediators recognize the deep bond between animals and their owners, the more enlightened have begun taking into consideration what living situation will be best for the animals.

For instance, the court may ask to review veterinary records to determine which spouse was primarily responsible for getting the animal its shots and routine health care. Others may allow testimony from groomers or obedience trainers to establish that one spouse maintains a solid bond with their pet.

Pets and the kids

No judge in America wants to be the one to separate a child already traumatized by parental divorce from his or her beloved pet. Often, the spouse who is awarded physical custody of the children will be the one who keeps the pet.

Alternatively, if the kids and the dog are especially bonded, the dog could be part of the custody exchange with the kids. This approach obviously won't work well with all dogs in all living situations, and cats would probably find the frequent transfers and constant changes in their living situations as far too traumatic.

Work schedules matter

It's hardly fair to a pet — especially dogs, as they are pack animals — for a spouse who works 60 or 70 hours a week to take over ownership when the other spouse is a stay-at-home parent or works normal eight-hour shifts.

Judges sometimes take that into account when determining ownership of the pet. However, it should never be assumed that a judge will take the pet's best interests into consideration. Make sure that your family law attorney knows that retaining ownership of your beloved pet is a high priority.

Source: Healthy Pets, "The New Rules About Who Gets Your Family Pet in a Divorce," Dr. Becker, accessed Sep. 08, 2017

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