Who Gets the Family Pet After a Divorce?

Disputes over personal property are common in most divorce proceedings. Any family law attorney can likely tell you about clients who argued endlessly over who should get possession of a treadmill that’s been sitting in the basement for years (unused). Ironically, purchasing a new treadmill would often be less expensive than the legal fees incurred by haggling over the old one in court.

When a beloved family pet is involved, this kind of dispute takes on another dimension entirely. Many people consider their furry cat or sweet-tempered mutt members of the family and sometimes these animals get treated better than a child. When both parties feel the pet they share is irreplaceable, the issue can become highly contentious.

Most courts in California treat the family pet as a piece of personal property with specific monetary value. How is a pet’s value determined? Both parties can submit “documentation of valuation” (for example, a Craigslist pet-for-sale listing) or they can agree to an objective third-party appraisal. As an alternative, many courts will accept an agreement regarding a pet’s custody and support, as long as both individuals agree on the specific arrangements. Courts generally will not make pet custody and support orders without such an agreement, even if both parties request the Court to do so.

Ultimately, if the two parties cannot agree on who gets the pet and/or its value, the Judge reviews the evidence, makes a determination and awards it to one party or the other at what the Judge feels is the pet’s pain relief fair market value. This determination will be offset by some other piece of property, or equalization payment, given to the individual who does not get the pet.

One of my first divorce cases involved a dispute over a horse. Both parties cared deeply about the horse. Everything else in their case had been easily resolved, including custodial provisions of the couple’s two children, but neither side would budge over possession of the horse—nor would they accept a joint custody agreement similar to what was in place for the children. Finally, the other party’s attorney and I convinced our clients that the respective costs to each of them if the case went to trial would be exorbitant—and that the final decision rested with a judge who probably never had taken care of a horse, never forged an emotional bond with a horse and might not even own a pet in the first place. This persuaded the warring parties to come back to the table and work out a joint custody plan.

As I regularly tell my clients, digging your heels in over a piece of personal property (including a pet) generally ends up costing you more money in legal fees and costs than the personal property actually is worth.

Are you in need of legal counseling for divorce or dissolution of a domestic partnership? The Law Offices of Ian S. Topf offer free consultation in a variety of issues, ranging from family law, estate planning, bankruptcy, and DUIs and landlord/tenant disputes.