Divorcing, with Pets: 5 Quicks Tips for a Smooth Resolution

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January 20, 2015 by sandyonyourside

Whether you and your spouse share a fish tank, a turtle, one dog, three horses, or five cats, splitting up the family often means painful discussions about the care and custody of family animals. Sure, you could always ask a judge to decide the fate of the non-humans in your family. But as I’ve said many times before, going to court is expensive and risky. There’s no assurance a judge will make a wise decision about your pet, or even take the issue of animal care and custody seriously. As individuals who (presumably) love your pet and want the very best for him, you’re much better off resolving the issue of what happens to Fido or Fluffy privately, if at all possible. An animal behaviorist or a mediator may help you come to an agreement without going to court.

Here are some guidelines to keep in mind when thinking through the issue of what to do with the animals upon divorce:

1. Know your pet. Make a list of all the things that affect your pet’s well-being, including age, health, energy level, companionship needs, and habits. Does your pet need a special diet or special care that one of you is better able to provide? Does your pet hate transitions? Is she still being house trained? Is she bonded to another animal in the house, or to one of you more than the other? Be as detailed as you can. This will prepare you for Step Two:

2. Put your pet’s needs above your own. The issue of what happens to your pet when you and your partner split is not about what either of you want for yourselves. It’s about what’s best for the pet. Use the list above to make a realistic and unbiased assessment of your pet’s needs that will drive your decision about your pet’s care. If you have a pet that hates transitions, for instance, then switching custody every week should be off the table. Many kids are flexible enough to adjust to such an arrangement, but kids adjust to joint custody in large part because of the conversations they have with their parents about it. Try explaining joint custody to your Siamese. Similarly, if you travel frequently, then no matter how much you love your Lab, you may need to recognize that he’s better off with your stay-at-home spouse. “If you love someone, then set them free” is so true when it comes to animals. Pets entrust us to provide everything for them, for life. The best thing you can do for your pet in a divorce is to make their transition to a new regime as seamless and comfortable as possible.

3. Iron out the details. But just because one partner gets custody doesn’t mean the other is gone from the pet’s life. You will want to work out a visitation schedule. You should also consider giving the non-custodial partner the right of first refusal when if the pet needs to be boarded overnight. Other considerations: Who pays the vet bills? Who pays the grooming bills? For an older animal, who makes the end-of-life decisions? For a younger animal, who decides about training, showing, use (horses, donkeys, etc.), or any special circumstances for your specific animal(s)?

4. Get it in writing. You need not enter the pet agreement as a filing in court, but you will want to get the agreement in writing. Make sure the agreement states that it represents the parties’ entire understanding about what will happen to the pet, and that there are no side agreements. You can draw up the agreement yourself, ask an attorney to do it, or use suggestions you find online or in contract books.

5. Be flexible. Because pets’ and people’s needs are constantly changing, your agreement should provide that it will be periodically reviewed (once a year or once every six months should do) in order to assess whether changes should be made in the pet’s best interests. A good way to conduct the review process is to cycle through steps 1-3 again. And of course, get the changes in writing.

And one more thing–don’t let people who don’t have or care about pets needle you about how much effort you’re spending working out these arrangements for your pet. Shame on them for not supporting you 100% in trying to do the best you can for your beloved animals during the difficult process of divorce.


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This blog is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Also, it does not create an attorney-client relationship between the author, Sandy Lundy, and any reader or correspondent.

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