Paw Laws: The Issue Of Pet Ownership In Divorce Cases


Divorce is extraordinarily common in the United States; around 50% of all U.S. marriages will end in divorce. While the processes involved in legal separation are complex on their own, the situation becomes even more difficult when children are involved. There are a number of laws dictating child custody (such as the fact that few authorities have the power to remove a child from their parents without a court order), but in recent years, new litigation has arisen regarding pet custody. As more married couples are choosing not to have kids, more concern is placed on who gets sole custody of the home’s dog or cat.

Custodial Changes

Only two states consider pets to be on the same level as children: Illinois and Alaska. Both put the needs of the animal above financial claim, such as who purchased the pet in the first place.

“If the court finds that a companion animal of the parties is a marital asset, it shall allocate the sole or joint ownership of and responsibility for a companion animal to the parties,” reads the Illinois legislation that went into effect January 1, 2018. “In issuing an order under this subsection, the court shall take into consideration the well-being of the companion animal.”

Since many couples — especially those without children — value their pets as their children, the decision to shift pet custody to focus on well-being makes sense. In some cases, joint ownership may be approved; typical child custody arrangements allow the child to spend an average of 277 days with the custodial parent, but pet custody law is much more flexible. As long as the divorcees agree on time spent with the animal, they both share responsibility for its well-being.

Changing The Status Quo

In most other states, pets are still treated as property; since part of the process of a divorce is the separation and distribution of property, the family pet often ends up with whoever is financially responsible for it. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always mean that the best “parent” ends up with the animal in question.

New York state is one of the few that has an in-between law in place; it doesn’t consider or treat pets as if they are children, but it does use a “best for all concerned” standard that is more nuanced than simple property laws. New York courts consider the following three criteria when deciding pet custody.

  • How the pet was acquired
  • How the pet was cared for during the relationship
  • The actual arrangement between the parties for spending time with a pet after the parties split up

If you are the one who has consistently been responsible for taking Fido to the vet, feeding and caring for him, and you spend the most amount of time, you’ll most likely be awarded custody over him. It’s simply a matter of looking at the facts of the situation.

Obviously, pet custody isn’t always straightforward. It can be hard to prove and quantify care, and your pup certainly won’t be able to help your case; whereas children have the ability to speak to a judge regarding their post-divorce living situations, animals are unable to communicate their preferences. Don’t be discouraged if it takes a while, either. Mold may set in after 48 hours, but deciding who will get sole custody of a pet is a weighty decision. That being said, things could be a lot worse; in the state of Arkansas, the court may force you to sell the animal and split the profits in the event that you and your ex-spouse can’t come to a custody agreement.