Many decisions need to be made in a divorce—who has responsibility for the children, how money is divided, and how personal property (including the family dog) is allocated. Yes, the family dog. While Fido may be your best friend and a full-fledged member of the family in your eyes, in the context of a divorce dogs are considered personal property.
Regardless of how we view our furry friends, the judge is required to determine the monetary value of the dog, and to allocate the dog consistent with the laws of property. If the dog were acquired by one party prior to the marriage, or during the marriage as an inheritance or gift, it must be allocated to that party as non-marital property, regardless of what is in the best interest of the dog or who is more attached to it. If the dog were acquired during the marriage, it’s considered marital property and allocated according to the equitable considerations.
In reality, a dog is more akin to a child in a divorce than it is to personal property. Anyone who has a dog knows that it cannot be overstated how attached someone may be to their pet. The emotional attachment may even be enhanced during the divorce process when a party may be alone and unhappy. Fortunately, judges are people and they do understand the attachment to the pet. While the Court views the dog as property, in a contested matter the judge may use his/her discretion and most likely award the dog to the party who is most attached to it and can provide it the best care.
Court-ruled shared custody agreements for dogs are possible, although they don’t happen very often. It’s unlikely that a judge will allow much time for presentation of evidence regarding a dog-sharing arrangement—certainly, Guardian Ad Litems are not appointed to investigate and determine what’s in the best interest of the dog. Also, the judge is required to divide property in such a way that the parties have little or no need to deal with each other in the future. It is highly unlikely, therefore, that absent an agreement of the parties, a judge would award joint ownership.
In the real world, there is rarely a trial in which possession of the dog becomes an issue. Generally, when the parties separate, the dog goes with one party and that same party ends up with the dog in the end. Also, if there are children involved and they are close to the dog, the parties will generally agree that the dog should go to the party with whom the children are living most of the time.
There are some instances where the parties will share the dog during the separation and usually, if there is that level of cooperation, a sharing arrangement can be worked out as part of the final divorce. Judges will approve a dog-sharing arrangement if agreed to by both parties. Once that sharing arrangement becomes part of the divorce decree, it is enforceable in the same way as any other part of the divorce decree.
Bottom line, dogs can be a part of the distress that goes with a divorce. As with most issues in a divorce, the best result is the result that the parties work out between themselves rather than a result imposed by the Court.