Custody of the family dog in Virginia divorce

Different things are important to different people in divorce. For some, it’s all about the dog. (And, to be fair, if it were me, it would certainly be about the dogs!) I can totally understand the way you’re feeling, and how scary it is to think that you don’t know what’s going to happen to your dog if when you and your hubby say “I don’t.”
The law doesn’t treat dogs the same way it treats kids. Kids are just little people; so custody and visitation of a child is a big deal. There are tons of factors involved when you consider how custody and visitation will be handled. (Ten factors, in fact.) Dogs (and other pets), on the other hand, are considered differently.
In fact, dogs are considered property. Like your KitchenAid mixer, your car, and even your hand towels, dogs are property, and all the laws of equitable distribution apply to dogs just like they apply to the other things you own.
Like your other “things,” your dog will be classified and then divided. How does it work? Well, to start, property is classified in one of three different categories, only two of which apply to pets.

Separate property

Separate property is anything that you earned, acquired, purchased or inherited prior to marriage. If your dog (or cat or rabbit or turtle) was something you acquired prior to your marriage, he or she belongs to you separately. Likewise, if your husband purchased the dog (or snake or lizard or chinchilla) prior to marriage, he can take him or her with him when he goes.

Marital Property

Marital property is anything that was earned, acquired, or purchased during the marriage, regardless of title. (Anything that you inherit is yours separately, whether you’re married or single, so long as it was given to you in your name alone and not to the two of you jointly.) If you purchased your dog during the marital, he or she is a marital asset, and subject to division.

Hybrid Property

Hybrid property is part marital, part separate. This couldn’t really apply to a pet; either the pet is a marital asset or he isn’t. (An example, just for your information, of a hybrid asset would be a house that was purchased prior to marriage. Whatever was paid prior to the marriage is a separate asset, but whatever was paid afterwards, like mortgage payments, from marital money is marital. It is possible for a house, or a retirement account, or something similar, to be part marital and part separate.)

What happens if we both want to keep the dog?

If you both want to keep the dog, you’re going to have to negotiate, just like you would with anything else. Of course, you could also go to court and litigate, but the best course of action for you (and also for your pet) is for you and your soon to be ex to reach an agreement together.
You can decide that one or the other of you will keep the dog, or that you’ll handle it like custody of a child. You can come up with a custody and visitation arrangement for the dog, if that helps both of you. For true pet lovers, this really doesn’t sound crazy.
If you have human kids, too, you may want to handle custody and visitation so that the dog comes and goes as the kids come and go. Lots of parents do this so that it keeps things as consistent as possible for both the kids and the dog, and they both get to spend time with both pets and kids.
In an agreement, there are really no limits to what you can decide to do. Whether one keeps the dog and the other gives up ownership, or whether you decide to share custody somehow, it’s really up to you. If you love your pets, you’ll find a way. (Much the same way it works with kids.)

What happens if he doesn’t want the dog?

Perfect. If he doesn’t want the dog, there’s no fight at all. You can take the dog, and the two of you can go on to live happily ever after.
Dogs are property, just like dishwashers. If you’re a pet lover like me, it sounds so counterintuitive. Because you love your dog and you want what’s best for him or her. Most of the problems come up when both people want the dog, because it makes for a more emotionally charged situation than if you were fighting, for example, over a dishwasher. If you’re worried about it, though, you can hire an attorney who can work with you to help craft a perfect custody and visitation agreement, or come up with some other type of arrangement that suits your purposes.
For more information, or to talk to an attorney about your options, give our office a call at (757) 425-5200.

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