In the last few years, pet custody has become a matter of interest for many state governments. Pet owners, state representatives, and judiciary officials are deciding to treat pets more like children than property in instances of separation or divorce.
Differentiating pets from property in law is bit of a grey area because the debate is fairly new, but since 2017, several states have passed bills that focus on putting a pet’s best interest at the heart of a custody arrangement.
In this post, we’ll discuss how pet custody is handled in the U.S. currently and how it can be managed without going to court by using a Pet Agreement contract.
American Legislation on Pet Custody
Historically, deciding the ownership of pets in separations and divorces was managed in a similar fashion to how possessions and assets (like valuables, furniture, etc.) were divided among the parties. Recently, that has started to change.
In January 2017, Alaska became the first American state to enact custody legislation specifically for pets, allowing courts to take an animal’s well-being into account during divorce proceedings. The act describes a pet as a “vertebrate living creature not a human being” rather than property (which is the case in most other states).
After the enactment of this legislation in Alaska, many states, such as Rhode Island, Wisconsin, and Illinois, are considering enacting laws that aim to treat pets like companions instead of household furniture in divorce and separation proceedings.
Regardless of legislation, there are still some finer points that need to be ironed out in regards to pet custody because there are some limitations, including:
- The legislation typically only applies to pets that are considered marital assets, meaning the animal was purchased, adopted, or rescued by the couple once they were committed to one another (e.g. married or common law)
- If a pet belonged to one person in the couple prior to a romantic commitment, the pet usually remains with that owner; however, visitation or a “joint ownership” can be argued if both parties have shared the responsibility of caring for the pet (e.g. walking the dog, paying for cat food, cleaning out the fish tank, etc.)
- The legislation doesn’t apply to co-owners in platonic or familial relationships (like roommates or siblings)
Handling Custody with a Pet Agreement
Although there have been advances in pet custody-related legislation in some states, generally there is very little regulation for custody arrangements between separating or divorcing couples.
Creating a Pet Agreement allows spouses to maintain some control over the custody arrangements for their pets beyond what is covered by legislation
A Pet Agreement (sometimes called a pet custody agreement) is a contract that you can use to outline the terms of custody for your pet(s), including:
- A visitation schedule
- How costs for care will be divided (e.g. veterinary care, food, toys, litter, etc.)
- Who the primary owner of the pet is (i.e. who takes care of the pet most of the time)
- Important details about the pet (e.g. the date of their last visit to a veterinarian, medication lists and schedule)
This kind of agreement allows both parties to have their say in the care of their animal regardless of the parties’ relationship. Owners in any type of relationship (romantic or otherwise) can use this contract to sort out pet care and help avoid disputes and a possibly lengthy court battle.
For example, in 2000, Stanley and Linda Perkins fought for two years in court over custody of their pointer-greyhound mix, Gigi, resulting in close to $150,000 in legal fees. It’s likely they could have avoided court if they discussed how custody of their pet might work before their relationship ended.
In some particularly vicious divorce cases, people use their spouse’s emotional attachment to their pet to gain leverage in their separation or divorce proceeding. This problem can potentially be avoided by creating something like a Pet Agreement.
Putting Pet Welfare First
If the trend of animal custody legislation continues, animal welfare will potentially play a larger part in divorce and separation proceedings.
No one likes to think about the potential end of their marriage or relationship, but when your relationship status affects another living creature (like a pet), it’s wise to think about what might change in regards to their care and what’s best for them.