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Pets and Divorce

Splitsville. It’s over. I want a divorce, and I want the dog. Couples of all ages and lengths of marriages face these dreaded words every day. The present that was given with a little puppy inside wearing a big red bow, or the fluffy grey and white kitten that you rescued together from the nearest animal shelter; when relationships reach their end, who gets the beloved pets?

Divorces inevitably make it necessary for material possessions to have to be split, from the house and the car to the couch and the table. As difficult as these possessions can be to have to halve, pets are quickly becoming the hardest piece of property to divide. Pets are like children. They’re part of the family. They’ve grown with you, driven you crazy, loved you, and comforted you. Stories of pet custody battles have been saturating our news feeds; couples spending thousands of dollars for sole custody as another spouse steals the pet from the other.

  • A woman in Texas refused several orders from a judge to turn over the two cats her former husband was awarded in their divorce case, and she was sentenced to 30 days in jail.
  • A couple in San Diego, California battled for two years over their dog, costing them over $146,000.
  • Two years after their divorce, a couple in Maryland returned to court, battling over their dog. They were met with a threat from the judge to have the animal sold and the proceeds split between them if no agreement for visitation could be reached. The wife thus far had spent $20,000 to keep the dog.
  • One couple in Dallas, Texas spent $16,000 in legal fees in a fight over their dog. The husband “dog napped” the pet for nine days, resulting in the wife receiving custody and the husband getting visitation.

Cases like these make it clear that people love their pets deeply and will go to any lengths to keep them. Unfortunately, most often, judges refuse to address these issues, calling it a waste of the court’s time. Most states throughout the US consider pets the same as marital property and treat the pet the same way they would in dividing up the rest of the household.

In Rhode Island, domestic animals such as dogs, cats, rabbits, etc., are considered marital property. When a couple is unable to work out an amicable custody agreement, the Court will decide which spouse will be awarded the pet. And in most situations, very few judges will approve an Order for pet visitation.

In simple terms, a pet is part of the marital property and must be divided according to its value, if there is a value that can be assigned. Which spouse was the functional owner? Who paid for things including medical treatment, training, grooming, and maintenance? The spouse who can prove the most financial and emotional upkeep is considered the owner and gets to keep the dog. In very rare cases, tests have been administered, measuring the degree of attachment between each spouse and the pet in an attempt to prove the “best interest” theory.

Couples experiencing the difficulties of divorce must try to shelve their own wants and reach an amicable solution for what’s best for the pet. The best interest theory is about the pet, not the parents. Like children, before spending thousands of dollars to have a Court make the decision for you, or going to crazy extremes out of maliciousness, consider the options that will be the least disruptive to the emotional state of the pet.