Visitation with Pets After Divorce

It’s fairly well-known how a divorce court will approach the painful issues about where children should live. Working from a prime directive to act in the best interests of the child, the court struggles to balance the interests and perceptions of parents, grandparents, and others. The court’s solution usually contemplates that the child will live with one parent part of time and live with (or visit) the other parent part of the time. The court carefully apportions authority for major decisions and if the arrangement isn’t working, the parents return to the court so the court can consider their case again.

That’s not the way it works with pets. That little kitten or puppy you and your spouse have raised may be a “member of the family” to you, perhaps to both of you, but to the judge he’s just another piece of property. Now before you assume that all divorce judges are heartless and cruel, consider the issues they must decide. Daily they sort out the fine china of people’s lives. They’re focused on the human challenge. Kitty-cats will have to take care of themselves.

This came home to me when I was a fresh divorce lawyer, long on eagerness to please my clients (who were cooperative with each other, by the way) and short on savvy. I inserted in their divorce papers at their request a provision that the 10-year-old family dog would live with the husband and that the wife would have visitation with the dog every other weekend. The judge rejected my carefully prepared documents. His exact words, as I recall, were “I ain’t messin’ with visitation for a dog.”

It took me a while, but now I understand why. The judge has his or her hands full dealing with the issues that must be decided. Animals, be they ever so endearing to the parties, are just things that need to be divided. And if, heaven forbid, you and your spouse were to return to the judge’s court later to argue about violations of visitation, the judge would never live it down. Nope, not going there.

If you’re bound and determined to share time with your pet, see if you can’t agree simply to continue joint ownership and leave it at that. You shouldn’t even have a problem with a provision requiring both of you to contribute to the costs of care (as long as the provision is clear). It’s when you try to specify who’s going to spend what time with your pet (or where your pet will live) that you’re likely to have trouble.

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