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Divorce Can Be Ruff on Your Pets

by Paul Simon, Hedgepeth, Heredia & Rieder

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When couples get divorced, the court divides all their assets, including their cash, vacation property, jewelry, and cars. Their expensive artwork and even their country club memberships are all equitably divided by law and process. There’s one other valuable belonging to be divided that most don’t consider property: a cherished and beloved pet.

Yes, you read right: Pets are considered property just like earrings and golf clubs. From your purebred labrador to a scruffy rescue dog to expensive birds and treasured tropical fish, pets have the same rights as your kitchen table.

Couples spend considerable time and effort to reach agreement on who gets primary custody of the kids, how often each parent gets to spend time with them, etc. Depending on the ages of the kids, they might be interviewed by a an officer of the Court to determine with which parent they want to primarily live or which parent is best suited for primary physical custody.

However, for better or worse, the Court is not known to interview the family dog to determine where he or she wants to be. There’s also not much a judge can discern from a game of catch. Georgia courts, like most across the country, consider pets as personal property without much, if any, investigation into which party is the best puppy-parent.

A New Breed of Pet Legislation

The New York Times reported recently that “Alaska was the first state to enact pet-custody legislation, which allows a court to consider the animal’s well-being. The measure defines animals as a “vertebrate living creature, not a human being” and took effect in January 2017.

At last glance, we haven’t seen any Georgia legislators who’ve suggested similar legislation. In our experience, most couples have a very sensible perspective on what’s best for their furry friends. We have, however seen some “pet custody” arrangements that rival child custody complexity.  

For example, parties may agree to a shared custody arrangement of their dogs and write that into their divorce agreement, specifying a 6 p.m. Friday to 6 p.m. Sunday time where both dogs could spend time together.

Take a Paws to Consider Your Options

Similar to child custody agreements, couples can agree on different options without baring their fangs:

  • If one partner brings a pet into the marriage, they would generally maintain “primary possession.” If a pet comes into the relationship after marriage, or if a strong bond has developed, that may  change.
  • Shared custody - Ex-spouses create a schedule where the pet alternates weeks or weekends.
  • Pet Expenses - The agreement might also specify how expenses are shared if the pet requires expensive food or medicines (or even routine veterinarian visits).

Planning for pet custody isn’t usually the first thing our clients think about when they seek a divorce, but the issue can bubble to the surface quickly once divorce proceedings begin. Your family law attorney can help you dig up your options.

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 Paul Simon is an associate with HHR. He can be reached at .