Pets in Divorce – Who Gets Custody?

By Katherine E. Garvey and Dana McKee

The Rise in Pet Ownership

In the U.S., birth rates are down, and pet ownership is up. This is particularly true for younger couples – some polls show that up to 72% of millennials own pets, accounting for 35% of all pet-owners nationwide. As these younger couples marry and have families of their own, they may be faced with the prospect of divorce. What happens to the family pets when the family splits?

How Pets are Viewed in a Divorce

Dogs, cats, tortoises and horses, courts are often responsible for determining the “custody” of pets in divorces. This, however, is far different from the kind of “custody” involved with actual children. No matter how much of a “child” the couple may consider Fido, Maryland courts do not see him as such. In fact, a dog is identical to a couch in the eyes of the law: both are personal property.

During the divorce process, personal property is equitably divided between the parties. The court will consider many factors, including which spouse made more effort in obtaining and maintaining the property, the amount of shared interest in the property, in whose name the property is titled, and whether splitting the property is feasible. In instances where personal property is difficult to divide, the court may order the couple to sell the asset and then divide the proceeds.

How will a Court Decide?

But when it comes to pets, often a court will consider which spouse was the primary caregiver or spent the most time with the animal. It may take into consideration whether there are children involved, who are also attached to the pet. The parent who is awarded primary physical custody of the children may receive the pet in a divorce.

Most pet owners going through a divorce do not want the court to decide who gets Fido. They usually work out a plan based on who can best provide for their pet taking into consideration their work schedules, their new home environment, and financial situation. Some owners, depending on the age of the pet, may consider a shared ownership arrangement or an arrangement that requires the spouse who gets the pet in the divorce to allow the other spouse to care for the pet when its owner is unavailable to do so for an extended period. The guiding principle in child custody cases is applicable to pets: “What is in the pet’s best interest?”

Divorce is a trying time for everyone; it affects pets, too. If you need help navigating through the process, you want an experienced divorce attorney to assist you. At Brown, Goldstein & Levy, we are here to find the best solutions for you and your pets.

Call us at (410) 962-1030 to schedule an appointment.