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Birmingham AL Collaborative Divorce Law Blog

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Who Gets the... Pets?

Coming to terms with custody of family pets

You want the wedding china; he wants the oriental rug. No problem. But if you’re a pet-owning couple who’s divorcing, sorting out custody of your beloved pets can become a major point of contention. Fortunately, divorce law is picking up speed when in comes to rulings on who gets Fido and Fluffy.

In January of this year, a precedent-setting law went into effect in Alaska, making it the first state to require courts to take an animal's well-being into consideration in the event of a divorce. Alaska’s House Bill 147 also allows judges to assign joint custody of pets.[1]

Although divorce law in Alaska may be ahead of the curve, pet custody has often been a bone of contention (pardon the pun) in divorce cases. Yet, until now, federal and state governments have formally recognized pets as “property.” With the Alaska law in place that may be changing. A Rhode Island lawmaker introduced a similar bill in late February. And some cities, including San Francisco, West Hollywood, Berkeley, Boulder, and Amherst (Mass.) have enacted ordinances changing the status of pet owner to “guardian.” [2]

Like most states, Alabama views household pets as personal property and as such, they are awarded on the basis of equitable distribution. This means if the pet was owned by one spouse before the marriage, it is held by that spouse afterwards. If the pet was acquired during the marriage, ownership post-divorce would be determined based on fairness given the facts presented.

Most couples try to agree to an amicable arrangement for their family pets. These agreements can be informal or written out as part of your divorce settlement. If the agreement is a part of the final settlement the terms of the agreement may be enforced by the court. Your attorney can help negotiate these terms. The following are common considerations for pet custody:

Pet welfare first

Is shared custody realistic given your pet’s temperament and needs? Or is one spouse better suited to care for the pet? For example, an active dog, might require a large yard, or an aged cat may require daily medication.[3] [4][5]

Follow the children

Often, pets follow the same placement schedule as the children. This may benefit both pet and child. Having the pet move between homes with the children allows the children comfort, and helps them to adjust to their new living situation.

Visitation Schedules

If there are no children, divorcing couples often work out a visitation or placement schedule for the family pet(s).  This allows both parties to enjoy the continued companionship of the family pet. If the parties do decide to go this route it is best to write out the specifics of the arrangements to avoid disagreements in the future.     

Financial Responsibilities

Similar to the distribution of responsibilities for child support, determining who makes medical decisions and how veterinary bills and other costs associated with the pet will be paid are best sorted out in the divorce agreement. (Some courts have even awarded ‘petimony,’ according to the Michigan State University Animal Legal and Historical Center.[6])

Emotions may run high when determining who gets pet custody. Even in amicable divorces, it’s best to ask your attorney to craft durable guidelines to ease the divorce transition for you — and your beloved four-legged, finned and feathered friends.


[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/animalia/wp/2017/01/24/in-a-first-alaska-divorce-courts-will-now-treat-pets-more-like-children/?utm_term=.5a0186577037

[2] http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/heavy_petting/2004/03/guarding_the_guard_dogs.html

[3] http://www.americanbar.org/newsletter/publications/gp_solo_magazine_home/gp_solo_magazine_index/animalcustodycases.html

[4] http://aldf.org/resources/other-issues-regarding-your-companion-animal/what-to-do-if-you-are-involved-in-a-custody-battle-over-your-companion-animal/

[5] http://aldf.org/press-room/press-releases/lawyers-must-plan-for-more-pet-custody-cases/

[6] https://www.animallaw.info/intro/custody-pets-divorce


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