Most pet owners love their animals fiercely, referring to them as family members and sometimes even ‘fur babies.’ Many of us here at The Kronzek Firm are pet owners as well, and we completely understand! But while that inclusion works wonderfully for an intact family, it isn’t that easy when a couple heads for divorce court. Which leaves many spouses asking, ‘Who gets the pets when a marriage ends?’
For most pet owners, categorizing their dogs and cats as “objects”, or “things” is unthinkable. But like it or not, that’s how Michigan law views pets and domestic animals. While houses, cars, and Aunt Betsy’s antique lamp are all assets that can be divided, a pet cannot be physically divided. So how do you solve this dilemma?
Many Michigan couples are now including the custody of their animals in their divorce settlement agreements. While the terms differ from couple to couple, depending on what works in each situation, many people are unwilling to completely relinquish their ‘fur babies.’ In some cases, a divorcing couple will split “custody” of an animal, or give custody to one person and allow the other visitation rights. Occasionally, if there are multiple pets and a couple may choose to split them up. Sometimes, one person simply takes the family’s pets and no amount of fighting can change that fact.
Regardless of how similar these arrangements appear to standardized child custody, it’s not the same thing. In Michigan, the family court will always try to divide property in a “fair and equitable” way when parting spouses cannot negotiate their own agreements. Because pets are considered to be property, this fair and equitable split includes the family’s animals.
Pet ownership is not handled the same way as child custody by Michigan courts.
So what can you do to ensure that the animals you love are not lost in the shuffle during your divorce? Well, there are a number of things to consider when choosing how to deal with this particular issue, but here are the three things that we think are most important…
Veterinary records, AKC registration documents, purchase contracts, and any other documentation proving ownership of a pet by one spouse is very important. In the case of a disagreement about who gets to keep the animals, a paper trail proving ownership, or at least ‘primary caregiver’ status can go a long way towards establishing who gets to keep Fido and Mr. Paws.
Pets cost money. They need to eat, to have regular veterinary check ups and occasional medical interventions, and require occasional grooming and other forms of care. None of that comes cheaply, and if you are going from two incomes to one, financial constraints should be considered when discussing possible pet custody.
Pets do not understand divorce. They only know that the people they love, and have lived with for almost their entire lives, are no longer together. This can be very distressing for animals. They have been known to grieve, experience depression, and suffer changes in their normal routines and behaviors while adjusting to the change. So be kind and understanding to your pet. Give them time to adjust, and don’t make them suffer by keeping them from someone they love, simply because you are angry or need a bargaining tool in the divorce.
Determining what to do with your family pets during a divorce can be difficult, but as experienced family law attorneys, we can help. We understand what the law requires when it comes to pets, but also how much people can suffer when their beloved animals are no longer part of their everyday family. If you are considering a divorce, and are unsure about how to address the issue of your pets, come in and talk to us. We would be happy to help you figure it out.