What Happens to Pets in a Divorce?   

    When two people get divorced, the parties to the divorce need to decide how marital property is divided, how custody is handled, who gets the house or if it is sold, etc. If they are unable to decide these things themselves, the court has the authority to make these decisions. 

Are Pets Similar to  Children?

     Generally speaking, custody of a child is decided based on the 12 best interest factors, and property is split "equitably." A frequent question when it comes to dividing property is how family pets are handled during a divorce. Fortunately, in most cases, the parties are able to resolve this issue amongst themselves. My experience is that most families choose to keep the dog (or cat) with the party that remains in the marital home. In other cases, one spouse may have been more interested in adopting the pet in the first place and the other spouse is happy to let him or her keep the pet.

How Michigan views Pets in a Divorce 

If the parties are unable to come to an agreement regarding who should acquire ownership of a beloved dog or cat, the court will make the decision and the animal’s future will be determined just like any other indivisible piece of property, no different than a television or a sofa. Michigan divorce law does not provide custody or support for the parties' pets. Unfortunately, pets are viewed more as property for which ownership must be assigned to only one party in a divorce case. As responsible Michigan pet owners who may be going through the divorce process, one should look into the collaborative divorce approach as one way to ensure that pets are taken into consideration throughout the process.

How Other States Handle Pets in Divorce

     Some states, such as Illinois, have passed laws that will allow courts to make determinations regarding ownership and responsibility of pets in a manner similar to how custody of a child is determined . The Illinois law reads, in part, "If the court finds that a companion animal of the parties is a marital asset, it shall allocate the sole or joint ownership of and responsibility for a companion animal of the parties. In issuing an order under this subsection, the court shall take into consideration the well-being of the companion animal." In other words, courts will determine if the animal was acquired during the marriage (i.e., whether it’s a marital asset) and, if so, then the court will give responsibility of the animal to one or both of the parties.

     Another state that is addressing the issue is Rhode Island. In Rhode Island, a bill was introduced which would require judges to “consider the best interest of the animal” in a divorce. Charlene Lima, the sponsor of the bill, said in an interview, “A lot of time I think [the issue of pet custody] is used as retribution. People can get really vicious in divorces.”

     Over the past several years, pets in the U.S. have received more protection under the law as courts have acknowledged that animals are not merely pieces of property but more members of the family. If this trend continues, it’s a matter of when, not if, Michigan enacts a similar law.


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