Many pet owners – myself included! – consider their pets to be like family members. Indeed, pet ownership is very common, with approximately 68% of all U.S. households including one or more pets.1
Given the prevalence of both pet ownership and divorce in the U.S., disputes over “pet custody” are not infrequent. Furthermore, the frequency of such disputes may be on the rise. According to a recent survey conducted by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (AAML), 27% of attorney respondents noticed an increase in the number of divorcing couples who have fought over the custody of a pet during the past five years.2
While our pets undoubtedly hold special places in our hearts, it may be distressing to realize that the family court system does not expressly recognize pets as being more than property. In fact, Wisconsin divorce law treats pets as akin to personal property items – like toasters or patio furniture – subject to the presumption of equitable division pursuant to their monetary value. In practice, however, determining pet custody in a divorce can be very challenging due to the parties’ legitimate emotional bonds with their pets.
Three Practical Tips for Divorcing Pet Owners
1. Do you really want to fight over your pet?
Legal battles involving pets can be very contentious and very expensive. Before resolving to fight your spouse to the bitter end regarding custody of your pet, consider whether the possible reward of a favorable outcome is worth the substantial financial and emotional costs of a contested trial. In reality, few divorces go to trial because the parties realize that it is often an unsatisfactory method of resolving family law disputes. Pet custody is no different. In most cases, it is preferable to reach a compromise agreement.
2. Consider a mediated resolution to your pet custody dispute.
Pet custody cases frequently consist of two primary questions:
1.) Who gets to keep the pet after the divorce; and
2) Whether the other party may have “visitation” with the pet after the divorce.
Unfortunately, family courts are not well-suited to resolve these questions. This is because, as stated above, Wisconsin divorce law treats pets as property items. Laws regarding custody, placement and visitation do not apply to pets.
Therefore, in most cases, pet custody disputes are best resolved outside of the court system where parties can work together to craft creative solutions. If you and your spouse disagree regarding custody of your pets following the divorce, consider hiring a neutral, third party mediator to help you reach a resolution. A mediated resolution regarding pet custody is likely to be more flexible than a judicial decision and more tailored to the unique circumstances of your case.
3. Develop a strong factual argument to support your position regarding future custody of your pet.
If mediation fails and you have decided to put the issue of pet custody before your family court Judge, you will need to form a strong factual argument for why your preferred outcome is the most fair and reasonable outcome. Some relevant considerations include:
- Who owned the pet prior to the marriage?
- Who was primarily responsible for feeding and caring for the pet during the marriage?
- After the divorce is finalized, who will have resources available for the pet’s food, veterinary care and other expenses?
- If there are two or more pets at issue, does it make sense for the pets to be divided equally between the spouses? If the pets are bonded to one another, does it make sense for them to remain in the same household?
- If there are children and one parent will have primary placement, it may be in the children’s best interests to keep the family pet in the primary placement household
Like any other contested matter, you will need to gather evidence and be prepared to offer testimony to support your position at trial.
For consultation regarding this divorce topic or any others, consider contacting one of family law attorneys at Hawks Quindel, S.C. in our Madison or Milwaukee offices.
 See American Pet Products Association (APPA) 2017-2018 survey results: https://www.americanpetproducts.org/press_industrytrends.asp.