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Fighting Like Cats and Dogs: Pet Custody in a Divorce

Many of us consider our pets to be like our children. We don’t think of them as property, but as a member of the family; so when a couple divorces, the question arises: who gets to keep the family pet? We have seen this issue played out in the media when celebrities get divorced. For example, when Britney Spears and her ex-husband, Kevin Federline, divorced in 2006, they had a bitter battle over custody of their two dogs.

How do courts handle this sensitive topic of who gets to keep the beloved family pet? Under the strict interpretation of the law, a pet is considered to be personal property and is treated like any other property such as a car or microwave. However, courts are beginning to treat pets as more than just property. Judges are taking into consideration what is in the best interest for the dog, as they would with a child custody case. Although rare, some courts will even grant joint pet custody to the separating spouses. In these cases, the couple must come to an agreement regarding issues such as vet care, travel arrangements, doggie daycare, and end-of-life decisions.

While some judges still base their decision on who originally acquired the animal, the trend seems to be changing towards awarding the pet to the individual that can provide the best life for that animal. This includes taking into consideration each spouse’s financial security, time available for taking care of the pet, and a strong emotional bond between the dog and the owner.

One way to avoid a bitter dispute over pets is to include them in your prenuptial or postnuptial agreement. This will ensure that the issue of pet custody is already settled in the event of a separation or divorce.