Pets are an important part of the family unit, providing happiness and comfort to each and every member. Although animals can enrich our lives, they can also be the center of a hotly contested dispute when a couple decides to divorce. Similar to a child custody dispute, it can be an emotional and stressful battle.
In recent years, pet owners have asked the court to determine ownership and custody of their pets. In fact, several states have also proposed laws to provide judges with guidance on pet visitation and dividing pet-related expenses.
Under Virginia law, pets are property and are subject to division by the Court, just like a vehicle, furniture, or any other item. The Courts, under Virginia Code 20-107.3, will do a two-part inquiry. The first question is whether the family pet is marital or separate property. So if the pet was adopted, purchased, or received as a gift prior to the marriage the pet would be separate property and that individual would likely prevail in maintaining the pet's custody.
In a divorce case all marital property—property acquired during the marriage—is divided equitably between the parties. If the pet was purchased during the marriage, it must be valued and given to one party or the other as part of property division.
When it comes to determining who gets ownership of the family pet, a judge may consider the following circumstances:
- When the pet was adopted – If one spouse owned the pet prior to the marriage, the pet may be viewed as separate property.
- The primary caretaker of the animal – If one spouse handles most of the pet’s daily needs (i.e. food, grooming, exercise, healthcare, etc.), then the judge may decide that spouse is the rightful owner.
- The best living environment of the pet – A judge may look into who can provide the best environment for the pet and who has the time and money to spend caring for the animal. In most cases, who has custody of the children is ideally the best place for the pet.
- History of abuse or neglect – If there is evidence that one spouse abuses or neglects the pet, then the other spouse will be deemed the owner.
If you and your spouse both want to share custody of the pet, they can enter the specific terms of custody into a property settlement agreement. Courts can leave it up to the owners to decide how much team each spouse spends with the animal. Couples should consider divorce mediation, where a mediator can help work out an acceptable plan that takes your pet’s best interests into consideration.