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The dog days of divorce: Who gets the family pet?

Anyone who owns a pet often thinks of them as members of the family. And thinking that way leads many to develop strong affections for their pets, whether they are dog people or cat people.

However, not many people consider what could happen to their furry companions in a divorce. And the answer is not as straightforward as one might think.

Is it possible to obtain custody of your pet?

In recent years, many divorcing couples have taken their “pet custody” battles to court. While Wisconsin family courts do not actually spend much time on these cases, they do consider some essential questions, such as:

  • Who actually owns the pet, or who originally acquired the pet?
  • Who provides daily care to the pet?
  • Who is primarily responsible for taking the pet to the veterinarian?
  • Which spouse’s living situation best accommodates a pet post-divorce?

The answers to these questions usually determine which spouse keeps the pet after divorce. However, the court does not usually establish custody or visitation for pets.

Wisconsin law sees pets as property

Even though many people purchase their pets and do call themselves the “owner” of the animal, they would never consider the pet to be their property.

Yet, that is exactly what the court considers them to be. Pets are classified as personal property, and therefore are actually a part of the property division process. That means that spouses have to think about their pets in financial terms, rather than the very emotional and personal terms in which they usually see their pets.

And it is not easy for either spouse—regardless of how they feel about each other—to think of their living, breathing pets in the same terms as the couch in their living room, or the table in their dining room.

State lawmakers have proposed a law to change this classification before, but it has not passed.

It is possible to create a pet ownership agreement to share custody

However, spouses can determine a visitation arrangement individually. It might be helpful to consider the same questions listed above when determining a pet ownership agreement. And courts will often accept these arrangements and add them to the divorce settlement agreement.

It can be difficult for spouses to figure out such an agreement in addition to other complex divorce proceedings, but it is often better than the alternative.

Unfortunately, many pets end up in a shelter during divorce

Just as it is common for couples to sell their home and divide the equity in property division, some may have to do the same for their pet if they cannot determine an ownership agreement.

The State Bar of Wisconsin reports that many pets in the middle of divorce end up in shelters. And sometimes they end up in even worse scenarios, where pets become a tool that spouses use to hurt each other.

Conflicting emotions and legal matters can make it difficult for spouses to determine who gets the family pet, which makes these kinds of disputes some of the most common—and divisive—ones in divorces these days.