Divorce can be difficult on so many levels—not having your kids around all the time; the financial struggles; possibly having to move out of your home; and the loss of the dream of what marriage was supposed to be. At least you can take comfort in your furry best friend, right? Well, maybe. One of the issues that needs to get ironed out in a divorce (but that is rarely talked about) is where the pets will end up. Who gets the pets when you divorce?
Pets are unique in a divorce situation. They may feel like kids, worthy of a custody arrangement, but the law in Minnesota (and most other states) treats them like property. If the notion of deciding your pet’s future as if it were your old coffee table rubs you the wrong way, you may be able to consider other options.
As noted above, legally speaking, pets are considered property in a divorce, which means they are subject to “equitable distribution.” Essentially, this means that property in a Minnesota divorce is divided according to what would be fair and equitable (not necessarily equal) to the parties.
Property that was acquired by either spouse prior to the marriage is generally considered “separate” or “non-marital” and is not subject to division in divorce. Instead, it goes with the spouse who acquired it. So if your dog was a puppy when you met your spouse, it’s probable that it would be considered your separate property. If you and your spouse got a dog together after you were married, or even during your engagement, things might be a little hairier (so to speak).
Unless you can agree with your spouse about what happens to your pet, you are going to have to ask the court to make a determination. It is usually better to reach agreement, since this typically yields a result you and your spouse are more likely to be comfortable with. When a court treats a pet as property, it is thinking in terms of financial value. If you are a pet “parent,” you know that the pup you got at the shelter is worth infinitely more than the coffee maker you paid the same amount of money for. Here are some thoughts on how to reach agreement about your pet’s life after divorce, and what to do if agreement is not possible.
In some ways, having children whose custody you are deciding can make the pet problem much easier to solve. Some divorcing couples decide to have the dog (or other pet) travel with the kids. There is one downside to this: when your kids walk out the door to spend the week or weekend with your ex, you’re all alone, without your pet to offer comfort. But there are many upsides to this arrangement.
For one thing, even an amicable divorce is tough on children; having their pet with them, no matter which parent they are staying with, can help things feel more normal and stable to them. If you have moved out of the home you lived in during your marriage, your new place will feel more like “home” to your kids if their dog or cat is there with them.
There are benefits to you, too. If you want to travel while your kids are with their other parent, not having the pet with you means that you don’t have to worry about the hassle and expense of boarding your pet. Of course, you and your spouse will still have to decide how to divide up the pet’s expenses, like medical care and insurance.
What if you don’t have kids and neither of you wants to give up your pet? Some couples still manage to share “custody” of their pet. If one ex-partner works from home, say, he or she might take the pet during the week, while the other takes the pet for the weekends. Of course, if you and your spouse want to cut ties cleanly when you divorce, this may not be an ideal outcome, since such an arrangement would force you to interact with each other on an ongoing basis.
You could decide to negotiate for the pet as with other property in your settlement. In practice, this might mean giving up something of greater financial value to make sure you are “awarded” the pet. If you care more about the pet than your spouse does, this could cause you to make an emotional decision that is unwise in the long term, so be sure to discuss with your divorce attorney before committing.
It’s also possible that you might want the pet for more than just sentimental reasons, if you have reason to believe your spouse might be abusive to it. Animal abuse unfortunately often goes hand in hand with domestic abuse, and some abusers use their partner’s love for a pet to control them, by threatening to harm or kill the pet if the partner doesn’t do what the abuser wants. In Minnesota, you cannot get an order of protection for a pet, but if you have one for yourself, you can ask that the pet be included on it and awarded to you.
If you have questions about what will happen to your pet in the event of a divorce, we invite you to contact Mundahl Law to schedule a consultation. We look forward to helping you and your family—including the furry members.