Pets are beloved family members in many households. In the event of a divorce, custody issues concerning the family pet can be highly emotional and contentious. While pets are still legally classified as property in Washington State, courts are increasingly departing from a traditional property analysis to determine which spouse should be awarded custody. Instead, many judges may follow the precedents created by recent case law — and take the best interests of the animal into account.
Although there are no custody laws in place for pets as there are for children, a court may consider several factors in divorce cases involving pet custody disputes, including:
- Who purchased or adopted the pet — The court may consider whether the pet was owned by either party before the marriage. A judge might also look to evidence such as registration or adoption papers naming the owner.
- Which spouse paid for the pet’s daily needs — A spouse seeking pet custody in a divorce may present documentation such as receipts or medical records to establish that they paid for the pet’s medical care, food, toys and other needs.
- Who was the primary caretaker — The court may award custody to the spouse who was responsible for feeding, walking and caring for the animal. The pet may also go to the party who has primary residential custody of the children.
- Which spouse can best care for the pet — A judge might evaluate which party can meet the animal’s needs moving forward and who is able to spend more time with them.
Importantly, litigation is not the only option when it comes to resolving the issue of pet custody in a divorce. Spouses may try to settle their disputes on their own or through mediation, rather than let a judge determine the outcome. If the spouses are parting ways amicably, they may even be able to reach an agreement in which ownership of the pet continues to be shared after the divorce has been finalized.
A “joint custody” agreement for a pet can be specifically tailored to help ensure the best interests of the animal — and the wishes of the spouses — are met. Similar to a parenting plan, the parties can create a schedule that allows them to each have meaningful time with the pet. It can also outline who will be responsible for paying veterinary bills, grooming costs and any necessary training. Couples can also address pet custody issues before they arise in a potential divorce by entering into a prenuptial or postnuptial agreement.
If you are facing a pet custody dispute in your divorce, it’s essential to have an experienced divorce attorney by your side who can protect your rights. The legal team at Bottimore & Associates, P.L.L.C. has been successfully representing clients throughout Washington for more than 20 years in custody issues involving pets. Call 253-272-5653 or contact us online to schedule a consultation at our Tacoma office.