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How do the courts view pets in the divorce process?

Most people consider their pets a part of the family and wouldn’t give them up for anything in the world. But while this sentiment is heartwarming to say the least, it is also problematic in cases of divorce. That’s because, when it comes time to split property, most spouses often refuse to relinquish their right to custody of a pet. Each spouse sees the pet as a family member to which visitation and custody should be assigned.

But because most courts, including here in Washington, consider pets as property, this creates a grey area, which may not offer the joint-custody outcome most couples would like. Judges must walk a fine line between respecting each party’s request while ultimately obeying custody laws as they are currently written.

We can show this by presenting a case out of Vermont where a judge was faced with a similar problem. And although the case happened far from residents here in Washington, it does demonstrate the complexity of pet custody cases and how even the courts may not be able to deliver the equitable outcome couple wants.

Much like here in Washington, pets are considered property in Vermont and are subject to property division laws in the state. Unfortunately for the spouses in the case, this meant awarding the pet to whomever took better care of the animal during the marriage. Although the ex-wife desired a shared-custody arrangement, the courts felt that custody of the pet should go to the ex-husband.

When she appealed, the court affirmed and explained that pet custody laws were not the same as child custody laws. This meant that the custody arrangement was not subject to modification. And while the court did not refute that the woman had a strong attachment to the animal, the law classified it as property and custody was determined based on those rules.

A similar outcome here in Washington would be no less aggravating but it does point out an important point. To avoid unfavorable decisions such as this, divorcing couples may choose instead to work out an arrangement on their own or with the help of a lawyer. In the end, this is often the only way to ensure joint custody of a pet in a divorce.

Source: Courthouse News Service, “Babying of Dog Cost Her Custody After Divorce,” Jeff D. Gorman, May 2, 2014

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