Pets are special family members but determining their ownership and visitation rights can lead to emotional disputes when a couple ends their marriage. Texas is like 46 other states where pets have the same legal status in a divorce as inanimate objects such as vehicles or furniture that is divided as property. Couples, however, can make plans to resolve pet custody fairly and protect their pet’s well-being.
Making a case
Judges in California, Illinois and Alaska must consider the best interests of the pet. Even though Texas judges may consider the pet as just another piece of property, courts may exercise their discretion by considering the pet’s well-being.
A spouse seeking custody should present evidence that bolsters their custody arguments. First, offer examples of their loving care and devotion to the pet and, if applicable, that the other spouse is less interested. Present proof that you paid all or most veterinary expenses and other costs for the pet’s care.
Finally, if applicable, show that the other spouse ignored or neglected the pet. Judges are also unlikely to award ownership to a spouse who is seeking custody out of spite or revenge.
Custody and sharing agreement
Spouses can also avoid arguments and disputes and fashion their own solution, instead of having a judge impose one on them, by negotiating a pet custody and sharing agreement. Couples may include this in a pre-marital or post-nuptial agreement or negotiate it while undergoing divorce.
The spouses should politely discuss the terms of an agreement. It may be helpful to give up a valued piece of property in return for the pet.
But spouses should never use pets as a negotiating ploy if they have no interest in keeping the animal. Seek the assistance of other family members and friends to help persuade an uninterested or spiteful spouse to give up their claim to the pet.
Any agreement must be written. It should be specific, address most of every contingency and cover issues that are like child custody matters.
Agreements must contain a weekly custody and visitation schedule. These should cover which spouse makes important decisions like veterinary care and, ultimately, when the pet may be put down.
Agreements need to deal with other matters such as whether a spouse can take the pet to another state. There should be a process for resolving disagreements such as mediation or abiding with another family member’s decision.
An attorney can advise spouses on their rights and options and help them negotiate agreements. Lawyers can help protect their rights in court and negotiations.