Pet Custody Laws

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What Is Pet Custody?

Pet custody refers to the issues that arise when more than one person claims ownership of a dog, cat, or other small animal. These issues occasionally lead to a conflict over ownership and custody rights.

Does This Mean Pet Custody like Child Custody?

Pet custody is not like child custody. First, pets are not people. While nearly every pet owner all may treat their pets like furry children, under the law they are nearly universally recognized as personal property.

Pet custody issues typically arise when a relationship ends, couples divorce, or separate and neither is willing to give up ownership of the pet they shared. Pet custody issues can also arise in disasters and other extraordinary circumstances. For example, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina many of the affected cities’ furry residents were rescued and relocated to shelters across the country from which they were adopted by well meaning and generous families. However, once the affected families started to recover from the disaster, they wanted their pets back.

What If I Recently Ended a Relationship and Want Custody of a Shared Pet?

Unless you can agree upon an amicable sharing agreement with your ex (albeit a spouse, wife, husband, girlfriend, boyfriend, partner), you will probably have to go to court to arrange a type of sharing schedule. Since pets are legally classified as property, they will have to be divided between you as such. Since the pet cannot be physically split, a court may order the prevailing party to "pay-off" the other party.

However, there is precedent for treating animals as a special form of property. Much like a rare painting or piece of jewelry, there is sentimental value attached to the pet that cannot be replaced with money or another item. Some judges even allowed testimony from animal experts on which situation would be best for the animal. These experts evaluate the way the pet interacts with each of the parties to see which it has bonded most with or even if it could handle a shared custody situation. Such shared custody hearings are increasing in popularity.

However, if you were never married to your ex, this situation could become even more complicated. Since the pet is property, usually the person whose name is on the ownership papers will have the better case. However, the other partner could provide evidence that they were the ones paying for the upkeep of the animal (i.e. receipts for food, supplies, veterinary visits, etc.) or were the primary caregiver.

Do I Need a Lawyer?

If you are involved in any type of custody dispute with your significant other, your children, your pets, or all three, a family lawyer who has experience in custody disputes can help you decide the best course of action. Speaking with a lawyer will be the best way to ensure you can maintain contact with your furry friend.

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Last Modified: 07-14-2014 12:02 PM PDT

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