More States Adopting ‘Pet Custody’ Laws

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Woman hugging dog.
Pets are considered important family members in many households.

To many people in Texas, dogs and cats are not just pets – they are members of the family. Even if you have children, you may feel the same way about your own beloved dog or cat (or other animals if you are a bit unconventional). Unfortunately, the love we share for our “fur babies” can make divorce proceedings especially difficult. Unlike children, whose care and wellbeing are governed by comprehensive child custody laws, Texas has no such law for how to address pets in a divorce. In the eyes of the law, dogs and cats are simply property, like a couch or a set of dishes. But in states around the country, there is widespread support for adopting pet custody laws that would treat pets more like human kids and changing the way that courts determine custody.

The Best Interests Standard

According to news reports, California enacted such a law at the beginning of 2019. It gives judges the authority (but not the mandate) to consider the best interests of the animal when its owners are getting a divorce. The “best interest” standard is used in basically every state when it comes to child custody matters (referred to as conservatorship here in Texas).

So what is in a pet’s best interests? Pet owners who want custody of a dog could provide evidence of who most often feeds it, walks it, plays with it and takes it to the vet. It is no longer just a standard of proving which spouse physically purchased or adopted the animal.

Two other states (Alaska and Illinois) have laws addressing pet custody – specifically the “best interests” standard. But people are so passionate about their pets that other states will almost certainly consider similar legislation.

Will Texas ever do the same? And should we?

Whether or not you are a pet owner, divorce is difficult for the whole family. The reassuring news is that working with an experienced family law attorney can make a significant difference in your divorce experience and the outcome of your case.

How Does Pet Custody Work?

In Texas family law, pets are considered property so pet custody is based on property law. As a community property state, Texas courts will typically split community property that was acquired during the marriage in a rough 50/50 proportion between spouses. However, it’s certainly impossible to split a dog, cat or bird in half. There are certain considerations the judge will make in these cases which are detailed in the next section.

The best approach a couple can take is to have a premarital agreement. It should detail the ownership and custody of the pet along with any visitation rights or pet visitation schedule in the event of a divorce. You can also clearly define if the pet is considered separate property or community property in a legal agreement.

A couple can also reach a pet custody agreement in divorce about who gets the pets. The judges typically have the final say in child custody cases. However, when it comes to pet custody, they will often defer to any reasonable custody agreement by spouses.

If there are custody disputes, the court will step in and make the final decision. The judge will decide the primary owner of the pet. Judges typically do not award any pet visitation schedule. However, they can enforce visitation arrangements if the spouses are in agreement. For example, you may agree that your pet should follow your children each time they visit the other party.

What Determines Ownership Of Pets And Animals?

In practice, when awarding ownership in pet custody cases, courts may consider the following factors to determine who should get custody:

  • The spouse who is the primary caretaker of the pet
  • The spouse who mainly covers the bills for pet food, visits to the vet and other things the pet needs
  • Which spouse will better care for the pet after the divorce
  • The work or travel schedules of spouses
  • Whether the children have a close relationship with the pet
  • Possession and access schedule of the children who have a close relationship with the pet. Judges commonly award pet custody to the primary parent having custody of the children

A legal agreement is the best way to define your pet as your separate property and prevent any issue. If a dispute arises without any agreements in place, you would have to prepare your case with your attorneys. Your pet can also qualify as separate property if you have evidence that the pet was a gift to you. In a divorce, the court does not divide separate property between a couple. An attorney can prepare the legal agreements and guide you on these animal custody issues.

In cases where is more than one pet involved, the judge may split the pets among the couple in the divorce. The party who isn’t as busy is more likely to get custody of the dogs. The party who travels more often or works may often get the cats. However, the judge may decide differently depending on the factors and issues involved. Some judges have even ordered that pets be sold and the proceeds split between the two spouses to resolve disputes.

Can I Fight For Custody Of My Dog (Or Cat)?

It can be difficult to determine which spouse has a better relationship with the pet and hence should get custody. If you can provide evidence that shows your stronger relationship with the pet including videos, receipts of your purchases for your pets, personal testimony from reliable witnesses, or even personal testimony from vets, you may stand a higher chance of getting custody of your pet.

You can ask neighbors or dog park visitors to testify that you were mainly the one taking the pet out. Your vet can prove you were the one who always took your pet to the vet. The testimonies will help the court to view your case more favorably. An experienced attorney or law firm can help you prepare a strong legal case that demonstrates your ability to care for the pet.

As with any child custody issue, if one party does not comply with the terms of the pet custody agreement, the other party may go to court and ask the judge to enforce the terms.

It can be very difficult to determine who gets the custody of a beloved pet during a divorce. If you need help defending your claim to pet custody or knowing your rights, let the expert Family Law attorneys at Sean Lynch law firm help you prepare your legal case. Our attorneys have years of experience in family law.

Contact us today for a no-cost case review.

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