Many people see their pets as family and an irreplaceable part of their lives. So, what happens when two people who feel this way get a divorce? Who gets to take the family pet after the separation?
In the U.S., pet custody laws are still in their nascency and nowhere as defined or enforced as child custody laws. When negotiating to keep your family pet in your divorce, it’s important to understand what exactly Tennessee state laws treat your pet as, how the courts will decide custody during the divorce proceedings, and how best to reach a resolution with your spouse.
The Family Pet: Companion or Property?
For many who are posed this question, the answer is a no-brainer. Your pet is a valued companion who has emotional and social depth and contributes to your life beyond property value.
However, it’s important to recognize that the majority of U.S. states, including Tennessee, consider pets to fall under the category of “personal property.”
What this means for your divorce is that your dog, cat, bird, and/or any other creature is treated as part of marital property. And since Tennessee is an “equitable distribution state,” your pet is, like any other asset in your home, identified, valued, negotiated over, and “divided” according to what the court deems as fair and reasonable.
With that being said, pet custody laws are slowly but surely changing. Thus far, the following three states have amended their laws to treat your animal friend as a companion and rule as such on pet custody and ownership and even parenting plans and visitation schedules:
- Alaska: The very first of its kind in the U.S., Amendment House Bill (HB) 147 judges according to the “well-being of the pet,” offering full or joint custody and even allowing pets to be included in domestic violence protective orders.
- Illinois: Public Act 100-0422 awards one spouse ownership of the pet but does not rule on custody or visitation.
- California: Family Code Section 2605 also awards full or joint ownership of a pet.
What Can I Do to Keep My Pet?
While Tennessee family law may not allow you much legal flexibility in terms of how you can fight for your pet or get joint custody with your spouse, you do have options to gain ownership of the pet.
The first step is to negotiate directly with your spouse outside of the court space. In fact, if you can come to a decision about who will take and care for the pet during these discussions, you can skip having the courts decide for you and potentially expedite the divorce proceedings.
A skilled attorney, as well as a mediator, can help you negotiate and fight for property division agreements so that you can hold onto your beloved pet. Carefully assessing your other assets, these professionals will be able to gain valuable insight into how your spouse may approach the negotiations and then assist you in strategically building your case for ownership, whether or not the dispute is carried over into court.
There are also preliminary steps you can take to ensure that you and your pet stay together. For instance, before you get married, you can add your pet to a prenuptial agreement and establish that you’ll keep custody of the pet if the marriage dissolves.
How Does the Court Determine Who Gets the Family Pet?
During your divorce proceedings, the courts will decide who will gain possession of your pet according to a variety of factors, both emotional and logistical, that assess the role that each spouse plays in caring for and protecting the animal.
Here are just some of the questions that the courts may ask in making their decision:
- Who paid for the pet?
- Who takes care (i.e., feeding, cleaning, walking, giving medication to, etc.) of the pet?
- Who pays for the pet’s essentials (i.e., shelter, toys, food, medical needs, grooming, daycare bills, dog walker services, training classes, etc.)?
- Who spends the most time with the pet?
- Whose residence presents the most accommodating environment for the pet?
- Was the pet owned by one spouse before the marriage or was the pet adopted by both spouses during the marriage?
- Does either spouse have any history of animal abuse?
- Who has primary custody of children, and will the children be affected by losing access to the family pet?
- Is your pet a service or emotional support animal? (Note that, in this case, your pet cannot be separated from you since they serve a medical need. Just make sure that your pet is certified, and you have the right documentation to prove it.)
According to the answers the courts receive, they will award one spouse with custody of the pet. In many cases, how much money you spent on the pet will become a decisive factor, so be sure to keep a good record of receipts and documentation.
Keep in mind that, while you’re welcome to bring forth evidence that will help the courts answer some of these questions, Tennessee law does not permit custody battles over family pets, and no legal measures can be taken to show that you’re a better pet owner or the pet’s preference for a particular spouse.
An Animal-Loving Attorney Who Will Fight for You
Even the most amicable of divorces can be taxing and painful, and losing your animal best friend on top can only add insult to injury.
Divorces get messy. You need an experienced divorce attorney who is an expert in family law—someone who will help you set realistic goals—someone that you trust.
Whether you’re filing for divorce or have been served divorce papers, you may feel like your world has come crashing down around you. It’s a very vulnerable and confusing place to be in, which is why you need the best legal counsel possible to navigate all the ins and outs of divorce law.
Attorney Hunter Fowler has provided legal services to many individuals in your exact situation and will work with you through every detail of your divorce proceedings to ensure the final outcome is what you want for yourself and your family. Contact Hunter Fowler today to get the legal counsel you deserve.