Division of Property or “Child” Custody – Who Keeps the Dog in a Divorce?

pet custody lawyer

Our pets light up our lives with faithful companionship and unconditional love. We consider them members of the family. Some of us think of our furry friends like children. If your pet is important to you and your family, and you are thinking about divorce, you should keep the future of your pet in mind when it comes to division of property.

Some states have specific laws in place when it comes to custody of pets, but as of this writing, Maryland does not. As cold as it may sound, pets would fall under Maryland’s Family Law §8–201, which defines “family personal property.” Unless some kind of agreement or trust exists which provides guidelines on who might get custody of the family pet in the event of a divorce, the court can resolve the issue just like any other property disagreement – by deciding who keeps the pet, and who does not.

Protecting your pet in a divorce

Some couples who divorce on amicable terms, or who have children, will devise their own “custody” agreements for their pets: for example, the family dog might follow the children around, or perhaps one person will take the pets in summer or on weekends. An informal arrangement such as this can work for some people.

However, if you are worried about the fate of your pets – out or love and attachment, or out of fear that your soon-to-be-ex-spouse will neglect or mistreat the animals – you should work with your attorney to ensure that your pet remains with you as part of the terms of the divorce settlement.

If you cannot come to an agreement, then the court will decide how to divide the property – in this case, your pet. A judge may look at the following factors when deciding the future of your family pet:

  • Original ownership. Which spouse acquired the pet? If you have adoption or ownership papers, provide them to the court.
  • Primary caregiver. Who took the cat to the vet? Who walked the dog every morning? Trained the dog and spent quality time with it every day?
  • Future care. Who can provide the best care moving forward? Will one party be moving to an apartment or condo where outside space is limited? Does one party have work hours that make it difficult to spend time with the animal?
  • Financial ability. What is each person’s financial ability to realistically take care of a pet after the divorce? Vet bills, pet food, medication: these items add up.
  • Purpose for the original purchase or adoption. Is the animal a show animal, or considered a support or therapy animal to a specific party? Certainly, a judge will not award a service animal, such as a seeing-eye dog, to the spouse who does not need it; but, he or she may consider other matters when it comes to the animal.

To be candid, some judges may not want to get involved in issues regarding pets. There have even been cases where the judge has ordered the pet be sold and the parties split the proceeds, although this is obviously an extreme case. There have also been cases where the judge has ordered the parties to split custody of the pet. If neither of these solutions sound appealing, you and your ex-spouse should attempt to remedy this disagreement on your own if at all possible, with the assistance of your attorneys.

At Cynthia H. Clark & Associates, LLC, we advocate for you during your divorce. We understand that being prepared is part of a strong strategy. To reserve a consultation at our office in Annapolis, please call 410.921.2422 or fill out our contact form.