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Divorces and pet custody

Washington residents who are preparing to divorce may be wondering how to decide who will get to keep the family pet. While most pet owners consider their creatures to be as beloved as children, historically, the law has not treated them as such. Unlike child custody issues, pet disputes typically are not referred to mediation. When judges were asked to decide the fate of a pet, the usual practice was to treat it as a piece of property.

Depending upon the divorce laws of a particular state, personal property is either community property or subject to equitable distribution. Courts would accordingly determine ultimate ownership of a pet as they would other household items, and judges did not often consider the well-being of the pet or which spouse was in a better position to provide care.

In recent years, there has been a rising trend of divorce cases that involve pet custody issues, according to a survey conducted by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. As a result, some judges are reconsidering the old way of deciding the animal's fate. A judge might ask whether one spouse has a history of ill-treatment toward the pet, or which spouse has a more flexible work schedule for caring for a pet. A judge might also consider which spouse has the space for the animal to exercise and the financial resources to provide for the pet during its lifespan.

Pet custody and visitation decisions are increasingly being made using the same principle as the one that is given a great deal of weight in child custody matters. A divorcing couple who can take into account the best interests of the family pet in reaching an agreement will remove from the divorce process an issue that often causes conflict.

Source: The Huffington Post, "Who Gets the Family Dog After Divorce?", Nancy Kay, November 10, 2013

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