Pet Custody

Pet Custody Battles in Divorce

Divorce is full of painful and life-changing decisions. While everyone expects to discuss child custody and the division of assets, another topic has gained traction in recent years: the family pet. To loving pet owners, pets aren’t a piece of property; they are family members. If you’re getting divorced, it is important to know what the law says about pet ownership and how your divorce could be affected.

Wondering how to get what you want out of your divorce? Call Olmstead & Olmstead at 703-260-8752 to set up a consultation with our team of experienced divorce attorneys now.

Pets as Personal Property

One hard truth you’ll have to accept is the way that Virginia courts—as well as many other state courts—look at pets. In Virginia, a pet is not like a child or any other family member. It is a piece of personal property, and as such, is prone to division like any other tangible asset in a divorce. 

This can be hard to swallow since what happens to your pet is likely far more important to you than what happens to your shared furniture or bank account. When pets are viewed as personal property, the court is not primarily focused on the pet’s best interest as they would be during a child custody case. They are focused on splitting the assets in a fair and equitable manner.

Once you know this, though, you can accept it and begin working with it to fight for your desired outcome. In some cases, this concept can even help you. While a purebred pet or one used for competition may be worth thousands, the vast majority of family pets are neutered or spayed companion pets that have minimal financial value. This can limit the amount of leverage your ex has and put you in a better position to fight for ownership.

Your Adoption Timeline Matters

The timeline of pet ownership can play a crucial role in the outcome of your dispute, as it may determine whether the pet in question is considered marital or separate property. If the pet was owned by one party prior to the marriage, they may argue that it is separate property and should stay with them. This isn’t cut-and-dry though, as the other spouse may have contributed to the pet’s care, vet bills, and other needs.

If the pet was adopted or purchased during the marriage, it is almost certainly considered marital property. When this is the case, the court has to look at additional factors to determine who retains ownership. When one party gets a pet after the date of separation, the court usually views it as separate property and denies the other spouse’s claim to the pet.

Remember, though, that there are many factors that go into this. If your pet was owned by your spouse prior to the marriage, that doesn’t mean you should completely give up. Perhaps you took over all of the pet’s care after you got married, built a stronger bond with the pet than your spouse did, and have continued caring for the pet during your separation. These are all factors the court will consider.

Proving Ownership

If your pet is marital property, be ready to prove to the court that you deserve to maintain ownership. You can start by getting any paperwork and documentation that may help you. Adoption records, vet records listing you as the main point of contact, boarding and training bills paid by you, and microchip records tied to you are all helpful.

Witness testimony can also help. If friends and family members can speak about who provided the pet’s care, knows the most about the pet, and has a stronger connection with the pet, that may sway the court.

Be ready to talk about your role in caring for the pet. If you know the pet’s daily routine, type of food, walk schedule, training achievements, fears, favorite toys, and other bits of information, that will go a long way in showing the court who has a stronger connection.

Explore Your Legal Options with Olmstead & Olmstead

There is a lot to address in any divorce, but you don’t have to go through it alone. With Olmstead & Olmstead, you can approach your divorce with confidence and strength. Call us at 703-260-8752 or reach out online to set up a free consultation now.

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