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What might happen to the beloved family pet during divorce?

Millions of American families are pet owners. Whether it be a dog, cat, bird, guinea pig, fish, chicken, iguana or another type of animal, these pets are often treated with the same love and respect as any other family member.

When it comes to divorce however, the law does not necessarily view those beloved companions the same way.

Is a pet property?

Two of the key components of a divorce are the division of marital property and the determination of how to best provide for any minor children from the marriage. Where pets fit along that spectrum is the question.

Should the courts treat Fido the dog as property, and consider him when dividing all other assets and liabilities? Or should the courts view Whiskers as closer to a minor child, with a custody decision and placement schedule to ensure both parties can spend time with the cat?

Currently, Wisconsin law views pets as property. There are no state statutes about animal custody following a separation. Keep in mind that the courts have a hard-enough time dealing with child custody. They are unlikely to entertain any requests or orders regarding pet custody. Therefore, in divorce proceedings, the courts will consider Polly the parrot the same way they might consider a house, vehicle, hobby collection or other marital property.

Views might be changing

There are some early signs of change. Nationally, the Pets and Women Safety (PAWS) Act treats pets as more than just property. It ensures shelter and housing assistance for not just domestic violence survivors but their pets, service animals, and emotional support animals as well.

Wisconsin has enacted a law that allows the court to consider and make orders about pets in domestic violence protective orders, even sometimes requiring abusers to pay financial support for those pets.

That’s about as far as the law currently goes, however.

Determining who is awarded a pet

The Court will rarely, if ever, make a formal order or decision about who gets a pet in a divorce.  They certainly will not enter “custody” orders.  However, if the court does decide to consider who is awarded a pet, it may take into account:

  • Who bought or adopted the pet
  • When that person obtained the pet (before or during the marriage)
  • Which spouse primarily took care of the pet
  • The “value” of the pet, just as any other property 
  • Other relevant factors

While Wisconsin courts may not approve of or enforce animal custody language in a Marital Settlement Agreement, a judge does have some discretion award “property” and to consider the unique facts of each case. For this reason, a divorcing couple may want to try to include considerations for their pet. That is something an attorney may be able to help with.

The way things are going however, we may not be far off from new laws which further clarify a pet’s status during divorce.

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