The custody of the family pets is often a major issue for couples during divorce. As a devoted dog lover myself, I can understand why these fights would escalate to a level similar to what you generally see in contested child custody litigation. To many people, whether or not they have human children, their furry children matter just as much. The thought of a divorce settlement that takes away their access to the dog (or cat) can be heartbreaking—and, ultimately, it’s a deal breaker.
Virginia law treats pets the same as any property—like a futon or a dining room table. To pet lovers, this classification seems wrong. If your pet is a member of your family, you don’t think of them the way you think of a chair or an oriental rug. And, like children, it is ridiculous to use the court system to litigate to determine who will get custody of the pets. It’s much better if the two of you can agree together.
Though, in most cases, either one party or the other ultimately takes custody of the pets, it’s not unusual for a shared custody scheme to exist. In some cases, the dog travels back and forth between both houses with the kids. Shared custody even exists in cases where there aren’t kids, but neither party could bear to completely give up ownership of the pet(s).
Remember, too, that the same rules apply to pets as to all other kinds of personal property. A pet, even if he has lived with the family throughout the marriage, can be classified as separate property if either party acquired the pet before the marriage. Ultimately, then, that pet would be the separate property of that party—regardless of the attachment the other party may have formed to the pet during the marriage.