What Happens with Pets in Separation and Divorce Proceedings?

Written By Tenk Family Law on April 27, 2020

Dog and Car cuddling

Pet owners may be surprised by how disputes about pets are resolved by the courts in separation or divorce proceedings Pets are much loved by all of us and often considered and treated as members of the family.  Though many consider pets as their child(ren), the court will not hold a “custody” hearing for a pet.  Unlike children, for whom the court is obligated to make a decision on parenting arrangements solely in their best interests, decisions about pets are made in the same way that decisions are made about property.  This means that the determination is made based on ownership.   

Determining Ownership of Pets 

If a separating couple cannot decide or agree on what will happen with the pets, they may ask the court to make the decision or submit the issue to an alternative dispute resolution process such as mediation/arbitration.  Determining ownership of the pet will be a question of fact.  The decision will be made by taking into account all of the relevant facts and circumstances. 

If you wish to make a case that you are the owner of a pet, there are a number of documents you can use to make your case, including: 

  • The receipt for the purchase of the pet; 
  • A certificate from the breeder you purchased the pet from, if applicable; 
  • A city or municipal pet license for the pet in dispute; or
  • If the pet was a gift, an Affidavit from the person who gifted you the pet. 

Separating parties are well advised to make decisions about their pets between themselves.  Litigating the issue of pet ownership is costly in both legal fees and court time, and will minimize the importance of the emotional bonds you share with your pet.  Determining the issue on your own also gives you the opportunity to take into account important factors such as the comfort that pets can offer to children who are affected by family separation.  A family lawyer can help you work out a plan for pets that takes into account the needs and comfort of any children of the relationship.  As an example, parenting plans can be drafted to include terms that any pets will travel with the children between homes, so that the children have benefit of the familiarity, comfort and companionship that pets provide as they adjust to post-separation routines and move between homes.