Pet Custody: Establishing Your Ownership Rights

Understanding the Gray Area

If you know anyone who has been in a bitter child custody battle, or if you have been in one yourself, you know that a “win at all costs” strategy can develop, with each parent saying or doing whatever is necessary to gain custody. Not surprisingly, this same scenario can play out with pet parents.

While proof of ownership is the "black-and-white" element of pet custody cases, more judges, perhaps pet owners themselves, are now considering "the gray area."

The goal of the court in child custody cases is to act in the best interest of the child. In pet custody cases, when both parties have provided records showing shared involvement, the court will then consider many of the same elements as when determining child custody.

Considerations will include the physical environment that each “parent” would provide for the pet, how much time each parent would have to spend with the animal and the parent’s ability to pay for care. Other considerations may include whether or not the parent has a history of drug use, incarceration or domestic violence charges, which may show a propensity to be violent toward a pet as well as the spouse or child.

Another factor that judges look at is the amount of involvement, or lack thereof, that someone has with a pet. If one partner takes on the responsibility of feeding, grooming and exercising the pet and can prove it, that person will typically be viewed as a more committed owner and will be more likely to gain custody. Depending on the state and/or judge, custody may be shared.

In addition to cases of divorce, unmarried couples can wind up in court over custody issues or claims that one partner stole property — in this case, the pet. Whatever the status of the relationship, you need to ensure that you document your ownership of your pet.

Looking at Divorce From the Pet's Perspective

In this article, we have looked at some of the practical methods of proving ownership and commitment should a couple decide to end their relationship with each other but not their pet. But what role does the family pet play in such a situation? Can he or she be emotionally affected by living in an unstable environment? And what is our responsibility to our four-footed friends when our own lives are in a state of transition and turmoil?

In the next article in this series, we’ll look at a breakup or divorce from the pet’s perspective and learn some tools to help your pet know that, no matter what, he is loved and will be cared for.

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