Who Gets the Cat? Texas Pet Custody Disputes

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Animal lovers see their pets as their children. For many, dogs and cats are part of the family — our fuzzy friends may share our bed, be a part of family photos, and even enjoy birthday celebrations. When a pet-loving couple breaks up, they view these four-legged family members the same way most people feel about their children. Accordingly, questions about pet custody disputes and related issues can become hotly contested in a divorce proceeding. Unfortunately, Texas law doesn’t see animals as lovingly as fur- moms and -dads. There is no pet visitation in Texas law, so you need to establish ownership or face potential heartache.

Pets can be caught in the middle during separation and divorce. Texas law treats our pets as property though we often regard them as our children.
Pets are often viewed as important members of the family.

In Texas Pet Custody Disputes, Animals Are Considered Property

All the stuff that a couple acquires while they’re married is called community property as defined by Texas law. In the case of a Texas divorce, that goes for pets as well. It doesn’t matter how much you love him. A family court judge will treat Fluffy the same as a table and chair set or any other personal property. Under Texas community property law, property will generally be distributed in a 50/50 split unless the couple has a prenuptial agreement. It’s clearly not possible to divide an animal in half, so the courts have to determine which one of the couple to award legal custody to.

You could, however, work towards shared custody of your pet animal as part of your custody agreement with your ex. The courts will approve it as part of the divorce order. It’s only possible because Texas law classifies pets as personal property. This is not like child custody cases where the courts have the final say on the arrangement they deem to be in the best interest of the child.

You can avoid the pet custody dispute if you bought or adopted the animal before you tied the knot. If you can prove this to a judge, then the pet will be considered the separate property of the original owner. An attorney can advise you on how to build your case.

Factors That Judges Look At For Custody

Ultimately, the judge will determine if the pet is a community or separate property during property division in a divorce. If the court finds that the pet is community property, the court will look into how best to assign the pet to a guardian and determine who gets ownership in the final divorce order. Some factors that a judge will consider are: 

  • Which party has been the pet’s primary caretaker?
  • Has either party abused the pet?
  • Who has a more pet-friendly schedule?
  • Which party can take better care of the pets in the future?
  • How will the children be affected by this decision?

Courts do not have to consider the best interest of your pets when considering pet custody. Bear in mind, judges are reasonable people – and often pet owners themselves. If there are two pets, the judge will often assign one to each spouse. If the kids have a close relationship with the dog, in many cases the parent who has primary child custody will most likely keep Fido. They recognize that Fido isn’t just physical property like a house.

Help Me Prove The Pet Is Mine

Some couples establish a prenuptial agreement before they are wed. This is a great place to designate your pet as your property. In the event of a divorce, a prenuptial agreement will make it easy for the judge to award you legal ownership so your beloved fuzzy can stay with you.

If you do not have a prenuptial agreement, don’t worry. There are still some ways to help you get legal custody of your loyal companion. You would need to provide some sort of evidence that shows you will keep your friend for a long time to come. Here are some proven factors the courts will use to determine which spouse should get ownership of the pets.

Five steps that show who the responsible owner should be in court.

Care Giver Evidence

A statement from your vet testifying that you are the one that tends to the  medical needs of the animal

Collect Pet Expense Receipts

Any receipts that you may have from groomers, pet supply stores, or trainers that show that you have been paying for the furbaby’s care

Prove you are the responsible pet owner

Statements from dog park visitors, friends, or neighbors willing to attest to your devotion

Gather Licence Expenses

A city pet license with your signature or copy of the receipt under your name

Document Who Adopted the Pet

The official adoption application that you filled out and signed

Your lawyer would be able to advise you on the information you may have to gather for your dispute case to show that you should be the one to get custody. They can also tell you about how Texas state law would consider the issue of legal custody disputes and any related issues.

There Is No Pet Visitation In Texas

Sadly, there is no legal visitation for pets in Texas. Consequently, if you are not awarded pet custody in the divorce, then you may be stuck with the heartache. As one of our clients lamented, “I didn’t find out about the passing of my beloved cat Eros until I saw a post about him on social media.”. Remember, it is best to document ownership. Also, save those receipts and have a list of witnesses ready. You may need them in case the unthinkable happens.

In some states, there have been cases where the courts created a visitation schedule between former spouses who had disputes over custody of their dogs. Other former spouses have spent large sums of legal funds to fight a court battle to settle the custody dispute. Some state courts have even ordered maintenance payments for dogs or cats, or ordered their removal from unsafe environments. In 2017, Alaska was the first state to pass a law that required the court to ensure that the pet’s best interests would be considered in a custody dispute.

However, while courts in some states are starting to look at more comprehensive custody arrangements that treat an animal more like children, Texas has not formally taken steps to recognize a dog or cat differently from personal property in divorce and property division law. This could change in the future.

Contact Us For A No-Cost Consultation

If divorce is on your horizon and your pets will be an issue, contact a Texas family law attorney as soon as possible. Custody laws for animals are still changing. A qualified lawyer who is well-versed in pet custody laws can help to provide you with advice on your pet custody case. At Sean Lynch, we have decades of experience in these matters. Contact us today! Let us know what you think with a comment below.