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Dealing With Pets During and After a Divorce

Man on a green grass with dog

For many couples going through a divorce, pets are more than just animals - they are beloved family members. As such, determining what happens to the family dog, cat, or other pet can be an emotionally difficult and highly contested issue.

As a family lawyers practicing in Texas, our attorneys at Coker, Robb & Cannon often get questions from our Dallas-Fort Worth area clients about their options when it comes to their furry, feathered, or scaled companions.

The Legal Status of Pets in Texas

In the eyes of the law in Texas, pets are considered personal property, similar to furniture or jewelry. This means there is no legal concept of pet "custody" or "visitation" like there is for children. When it comes to dividing up belongings in a divorce, pets fall into the category of assets that must be distributed between the parties.

However, just like any other personal property that the parties cannot agree on dividing, judges can consider many factors when making decisions about pets, including the best interests of the pet and which spouse is the primary caregiver and provider for the animal.

Factors like who feeds, grooms, takes the pet to vet appointments, pays pet expenses, and has the stronger emotional bond with the pet can influence who gets possession of the pet after divorce.

As divorce lawyers, unfortunately we sometimes see situations in very contentious divorces in which one spouse, often the spouse who is less-attached, attempts to use the pet as leverage against the other spouse. While this behavior can be despicable, it does create a very difficult situation for the more attached spouse. It is important, in these situations, to work with a skilled family lawyer so that the factors mentioned above can be presented to the Judge and, to the extent possible, the truth of the situation can be used to try to secure the best result possible for the client and their pet.

Options for Pet Owners to Consider

Because pets lack any special legal status, ex-spouses must get creative when deciding arrangements for their animal companions post-divorce. However, like any other type of personal property in Texas, the parties do have options to reach contractually enforceable agreements as part of that creative process. Here are a few of those options:

Sole or Joint Ownership: One spouse keeps the pet outright, or the couple shares ownership and the pet transitions between households on a set schedule like children in a custody agreement.

Pet Visitation: Even if one spouse is awarded sole ownership of the pet, the other spouse could potentially negotiate visitation rights to spend time with the animal.

Pet Support: In some cases, the spouse receiving ownership of the pet may request the other spouse pay a reasonable amount of pet support to cover a portion of ongoing costs like food, grooming, and veterinary care. While the Judge would not likely order this, the parties can agree to this type of arrangement.

Pet Nuptial Agreements: Similar to a prenuptial agreement, some couples are choosing to establish legal "pet-nups" before getting married that determine upfront what would happen with their pets in the event of a divorce down the line.

These are very interesting, novel agreements that are becoming more and more popular. As contractual agreements between the parties, they are enforceable under Texas Law and can work to avoid a potentially expensive, and emotionally difficult, fight over ownership of the pet should the parties end up in divorce.

No matter which route a couple decides to pursue regarding their pets, it is best to work with an experienced Texas family law attorney, especially in novel situations that call for creative and careful drafting of final orders.

At Coker, Robb & Cannon, we can provide counsel on your options and advocate for an arrangement that works for you, your soon-to-be-ex, and your beloved family pet.

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