Despite feverish disputes over pet custody during divorce, courts consider pets property of a marriage rather than beings deserving of shared parenting time. According to a 2008 survey by the American Pet Products Association, 63 percent, or 71.1 million of U.S. households include pets – mostly dogs. Statistics also show that couples are having fewer children than in previous generations and spending more money on their pets ($58.51 billion a year according to a 2014 APPA survey).
But before you ask your attorney to run to court over your pet, know this: Maryland judges don’t like to rule on pets during divorce cases. All too often during custody discussions my clients will ask about parenting time with their dog in the same way other clients discuss parenting time with children. It’s hard enough to determine the best interests of children and maintain equitable distribution of time, resources and attention for human families – no matter how serious pet custody may be to you. If divorce is not hard enough already, pet-loving soon-to-be-ex spouses must find a way to work out the “who-gets-Fido” question without killing each other because the courts aren’t going to help.
In Maryland family court, pets are not treated like children, but instead as property. As such, the court will not determine who has the family pet and when, but will determine how the pet is titled to determine what to do with the pet. If the pet is titled in both parties’ names and they cannot reach an agreement the court’s only options is to order the pet to be sold and the net proceeds divided equally. If the pet is titled in one party’s name then that party keeps the pet, but depending on other factors and how the other assets are tiled and what the value of each asset is will determine, what if any money should be paid to the other party.
So what can divorcing couples do about their pets?
The best approach is to keep the pet with the kids – and when the children switch from one parent to the other, the pet goes too.
If you’re childless or an empty-nester, you can decide to share pet time, as you amicably divorce. Or you can get a new pet as you begin a new chapter of life, learning to love the new pet with as much passion as the first one.
It’s important to keep in mind that custody battles over pets have little to do with the animals themselves. It’s about control and winning and lashing out when you feel hurt, as are most arguments during a divorce. When you’re feeling a loss of love, holding onto a pet can be reassurance that someone in the world loves you unconditionally.
The same goes to individuals who are not married, but live together and share a pet. In these situations, a cohabitation agreement is something that should be considered in the event that the relationship ends.