In West Virginia and other states, some couples treat their treasured pets as children and, during a divorce, can dispute who keeps the dog and whether they should have visitation or custody rights.
The law is still evolving to address this situation, and most courts will only award full ownership to one person. The following goes deeper into current pet custody laws and the future.
Current status of pet custody laws
In family law divorce proceedings, pets are typically seen as personal property, like a table or lamp. If one spouse brought the dog when they entered the marriage, or a prenuptial agreement specifies that they own the pet, that spouse typically retains ownership of the dog.
Because the courts view dogs as marital property, if the couple brings the dog into the relationship after the marriage, it is factored into the divorce agreement and can become a negotiating point. One ex-spouse can keep the dog in exchange for giving the other something they want unless they decide ownership in a post-nuptial agreement.
Changes in the law
Laws regarding custody of the family dog are changing and are becoming more like child custody laws. Some courts recognize pets as more than personal property and aim for an outcome that is in the best interests and well-being of the pet.
Until more laws develop, mediation to reach an amicable shared custody arrangement may serve all parties better than a legal decision favoring only one party.
States with existing dog custody laws
Alaska, California and Illinois are the first three states to have laws that decide who gets custody of the family dog and under what conditions. Alaska’s system is based on the pet’s best interests, while Illinois will award ownership of the pet but does not make any determinations regarding dog custody or visitation. California courts award ex-spouses full- or joint-ownership.
The courts look to previous cases to set a precedent for awarding dog custody. The determining factors include the following:
- Who paid for the dog (must be documented)?
- Who pays for ongoing food and other care?
- Who spends time with the dog?
- How will the children (if any) be affected by being separated from the dog?
- Does either owner have any history of animal abuse?
- Whom does the dog prefer more, and which person is in the dog’s best interests?
Pets are an essential part of many families. New laws are changing how the courts view dogs, and it’s necessary to understand how to negotiate for your wishes and your pet’s best interests.