Millions of families have pets, and just as millions of people get divorced each year, millions of pets are up for grabs as pieces of property in many family law cases. In 2004, the pet industry grew to nearly $45 billion, a testament to how many products, care, and importance are placed on family animals and pets in the United States. As such, pets are often an integral part of divorce hearings and separation agreements that affect every party, especially when children are involved.
A Texas court of appeals once ruled that a dog is a piece of property that, unlike children, can be divvied up between parties in the same way a home, car, or other valuables are shared. Thus, a court judge cannot award "custody" to either party when it comes to a dog, cat, or any other animal that is defined as a household pet in family law. Fido will have to go to one party or the other; if neither party wishes to take the possession, Fido will have to be given to a family member, sold, or given up for adoption. These are the unfortunate realities of separations and divorces.
Many families often need the help of lawyers who are specialized in family law when going through a divorce. These lawyers know how to set up the terms and arrangements with either party so that properties are equally distributed or at least agreed upon. When it comes to pets, however, things can get sticky. Pets often hold strong emotional ties that can be stronger than material possessions. Custody can be awarded to children, material items can be distributed, but if there's only one Fido, divorce court can get ugly fast.
Unfortunately, because many state laws view pets as personal or private property, the court may not consider the pet's best interest. On the other hand, parties can also set up their own agreement when it comes to a family pet and often ask a court to sign off on such an agreement. Despite this, however, many divorces require lawyers to establish these agreements or set up an environment in which the destiny of the pet is discussed, negotiated, and settled.
Trial lawyers are ready to mitigate the turbulence, but not everything works out to everyone's advantage. Because pets are an integral part of the family, they are often caught up in the mess from managing who gets what in a divorce. As a side note, it is best to keep things as smooth and calm as possibly, not only for the sake of the pet, but especially if children are involved who may hold a special, emotional connection to these animals.
For those unsure about the fate of their pets in the event of a divorce, it is best to consult with their lawyer. If the divorce hearing goes smoothly, parties can generally work out where the pet will go and can even arrange their own private meetings if they wish. Nevertheless, any agreement that is made should be signed off on by all parties and made aware of by the court.