The Care and Custody of the Family Pet After Divorce

It’s very shocking to some clients when they find out that, in the eyes of the law, pets are treated as personal property rather than as family members. Trust me, I get it. I’m an animal lover (but specifically a lover of Labrador retrievers), and it does seem strange to me to talk about who gets the TV in the same breath as who gets to keep Fluffy.

If you love your pets like I love mine, that seems wrong. However, if you go to court over it, the judge is likely to have very little patience in a dispute regarding care and custody of a beloved family pet. It doesn’t matter that you view your Pekingese as your furry child or that you and your husband are only united in the belief that whatever the vet bill is, you’ll find a way to pay it. Courts are overloaded, and many judges, particularly in the Hampton Roads area, have more cases than they know what to do with. The fact that you and your husband can’t agree about who is going to get to keep your cat is not going to rate very high on their list of priorities.

If that’s not good enough for you, it’s probably going to be in your best interest to negotiate a separation agreement that handles custody of your pets. I’m seeing this more and more frequently and, frankly, I think it makes sense. If the two of you are only united in your love for your pet, then neither of you is going to be happy about an arrangement where you don’t both get to spend time with him after the divorce. I’ve drawn up several custodial arrangements for pets.

In some cases, the pets travel back and forth between households with the children. In other cases, the pet sometimes has a different schedule entirely, so that he has time to spend with the children and then also gets separate time with mom and dad. It may seem complicated, but usually we can work something out that works for everyone involved. It’s difficult to split time, but it’s certainly better than an all-or-nothing approach.

In other cases, the custodial arrangement is designed to help facilitate treatment for the pet, particularly if he is elderly. I’ve seen situations where the pet was ill, and both parties drafted an agreement that allowed them to work together to help take care of him so that he always had his medicine and his vet appointments covered.

If you’re both so attached to your pet(s) that you can’t imagine living without them after your divorce, it’s a good idea to consider drafting a custody and visitation arrangement. That way, both you and your ex will be able to stay involved in the pet’s life. After all, that’s what you’d do for your children, isn’t it? A Virginia divorce and custody attorney will be able to help you draft a workable custody and visitation arrangement.

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