The question of who gets the pet during a divorce can be one of the most emotional issues of the entire process. Jessica Leischner, family law attorney and partner at Wade, Grimes, Friedman, Meinken & Leischner, PLLC, joins Mandy Walker on Since My Divorce Podcast to discuss the 7 things pet owners need to consider when getting a divorce.
1. Pets Are Property
“Most jurisdictions including D.C., Maryland, and Virginia treat pets as property,” Leischner explains, “which means judges are restricted in what they can do.” Usually, it’s best for you and your soon-to-be-ex to reach an agreement outside the court — because unless one of the parties owned the pet before the marriage, it’s hard to say how the judge will rule.
2. Sharing Pets Keeps You Connected
If you plan to share custody of a pet, it’s important to recognize that shared ownership requires frequent or constant contact with an ex-spouse. While this might not be a problem for everyone, remaining in contact with an ex can be difficult for both parties.
3. Should You Delay Your Divorce?
It’s not uncommon for a couple to delay a divorce in an effort to handle the “pet problem” before ending their marriage. But Leischner says instead of stalling a divorce, it might be best to try to work out an agreement, even if it isn’t what a court would order.
4. Create a Written Agreement
Get everything in writing and signed by both parties, as Leischner says verbal agreements too often turn into “he said she said” situations that become difficult to prove.
5. Who Makes the Decisions?
The agreement should identify who makes big decisions about the pet (including medical treatments) and what happens if one party no longer wants the pet.
6. Spell Out the Expense Sharing
Don’t skim over expenses in the written agreement. Clearly identify what is and isn’t a shared expense. For example, pet food is not usually considered a shared expense, while medical costs, pet sitters, and boarding costs can be.
7. What Does Sharing Look Like?
If you’re going to continue to care for a pet together, it’s important to map out what shared ownership looks like. Will the pet be moving between the two homes or live with one owner, while the other comes over to visit? Can the visiting ex-spouse stop by anytime or only during scheduled visits? Will they have access to your home when you’re not there? If your ex will be caring for the pet while you are away, are you comfortable sharing your travel plans with them two or three years after the divorce?
“You have to identify what could become problems so they won’t become problems down the line,” said Leischner. Mapping out solutions to potential problems in an agreement could prevent future legal issues.