It’s a serious question. Traditionally, Fido and Whiskers have been viewed by the courts as nothing more than property that must be divided equitably in divorce. As more people come to believe that their pets are part of the family, however, the more contentious the issue has become.
“I have clients who have worked together to divide million-dollar assets, but they can’t agree to a settlement regarding their family dog,” said one Michigan divorce lawyer interviewed by the USA TODAY network. “The intensity people can invest in a pet is phenomenal, because they view it as a member of the family.”
It’s not just in Michigan. Recently, a survey of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers reported an increase in so-called “pet custody” disputes over the past five years or so.
The increase has led some states to pass new divorce rules to treat pets more like children. For example, Illinois recently authorized judges to order sole or joint custody and to take the animal’s well-being into account.
Michigan, however, has not passed such a law. That means that pets are still considered property and given to one spouse or the other based on property rules. For example, if one spouse brought the pet to the marriage, they might have a better claim than the other spouse. Unfortunately, if the pet was adopted by the couple during the marriage, the spouses have an equal claim — and judges won’t consider who is the better “pet parent” or what is in the pet’s best interest.
Therefore, it’s often best to resolve pet custody concerns outside of courts. If you’re engaged or happily married, you should consider a prenuptial or marital agreement. These are typically enforceable as long as they are well drafted. They should be detailed and consider eventualities such as one divorced spouse moving out of state.
If you are considering or involved in a divorce now, you can negotiate a resolution, even if the court wouldn’t have the power to offer the same solution. For example, even though judges can’t set up pet visitation plans, you can set one up as part of your divorce settlement agreement. Consider a couple of tips:
- Make sure any pet visitation follows the same schedule as your parenting plan. This ensures that the family animal is always with the kids and cuts down on travel and coordination.
- Include a right of refusal, allowing you to turn down the pet when you’re out of town. Otherwise, your ex could insist you accept and board the animal.
- Include how expenses will be shared. Narrow down what will be considered a reasonable expense that the parties would share and which expenses are separate.