Many of us consider our pets to be a part of the family. When pet owners divorce, however, they soon find out that their furry loved ones are legally classified as property. 

By Brent Bohan, Attorney at McKinley Irvin Family Law

Many of us consider our pets to be a part of the family. When pet owners divorce, however, they soon find out that their furry loved ones are legally classified as property. More and more, however, a desire to treat our cherished pet relationships with greater significance has affected the issue of pet ownership in divorce proceedings. In many cases, rather than property, pets are being treated as something more closely resembling a dependent child.

In the last few years, pets have become a frequent topic of discussion in divorce settlements, with couples spending more time and attention – and ultimately more money – determining custody and care for their pets. As time passes, the law has begun to recognize the emotional connection and attachment people have with their pets that they do not have with property.

A Turning Point

When did the local laws start to recognize pets as more than just property? One notable case occurred in 2011. A woman was walking her dog through the city when the dog walked across a metal plate connected to a lamppost. As soon as her dog stepped on the metal plate, the dog was electrocuted and did not survive. The woman complained to the city and they offered her a check to reimburse her for the monetary value of her dog and out of pocket expenses. Unhappy with what she felt was an insensitive response to her situation; the woman sued the city, arguing that the dog was so much more to her than just personal property. She considered the dog part of her family and pleaded her strong bond with the animal to the court. Eventually, the city acknowledged her dog was more than property and she received a higher settlement.

The strong relationship people experience with their pets, unlike other property, is increasingly becoming more of an issue in court. Even so, the current laws still do not recognize pets as being anything more than property, and many settlements like this are being made on a case-by-case basis.

Let’s Talk Divorce

The issue of pet “custody” continues to increase in divorce cases. Since there is no established case law to guide the discussion, couples are often left to navigate the unclear waters as best they can. Though with the increasing frequency of these types of negotiations, common outcomes are beginning to emerge.

In relationships where the pet was acquired before the couple married, the pet is often awarded to the original owner. And in relationships where the pet was adopted together, amicable parties are often able to acknowledge the “alpha,” or the person to whom the pet is more attached. Unfortunately, in situations where a pet parent desires pet custody that is not awarded to him/her, that person will only receive monetary compensation for the pet being awarded to the other person – and some couples are spending a lot on mediation to iron this out.

Beyond pet custody, another popular request during the discussion around division of assets is pet visitation rights. In certain cases, people are splitting time with a pet as they would a child, their divorce order mimicking a parenting plan. It has yet to be determined if such a visitation schedule is enforceable in court, but people are using it as a way to share time with a pet that was adopted during the marriage. This type of plan allows parties to acknowledge the pet as something more than a possession and remove the decision from the court, which still views pets as property.

So, What Now?

With the way things have been trending, it’s likely we’ll continue to see a rise in discussions around pet custody and visitation during divorce proceedings. As a result, case law that helps provide guidelines and sets a standard may emerge, allowing couples a bit more clarity in their mediations in the future.

About Brent Bohan

Brent Bohan is an attorney with McKinley Irvin Family Law in Seattle, where he represents clients in divorce, custody, and other family law matters.

McKinley Irvin has several offices across the Puget Sound and in Portland, Oregon.

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