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Breakups and divorce: Who gets the dog?

Divorcing the person that you thought you would spend the rest of your life together can prove highly emotional. However, once you remove your emotions from the equation, you need to work through untangling your assets and debts so you can move forward with your own life. While you may be able to divide some assets, such as, say, your home equity, without too much trouble, figuring out what to do with others, such as a shared family pet, can prove far more difficult.

Until recently, judges determining who gets to keep the family dog or pet in a divorce would typically view the pet in the same way he or she would other shared property, such as a motor vehicle or work of art. In recent years, though, many states have shifted how they handle pets in divorce, with many of them starting to view the pet more like they would a child, rather than an inanimate object.

How courts decide pet custody

Just as judges and courts consider "the best interests of the child" when making child custody decisions, increasingly, they consider "the best interests of the pet" when making pet custody determinations. So, how may they assess the best interests of a pet?

To determine a pet's best interests and decide which party in the divorce should retain custody in the aftermath, courts may look at which party in the marriage provided the most care for the pet during the marriage. For example, you can anticipate the court potentially looking at areas such as who walked the pet, who took the pet to vet appointments, who paid for those appointments and so on.

The court may also consider which party in the marriage signed the pet's adoption papers before issuing pet custody determinations. Additionally, in some cases, a judge may dictate that the party who does not have custody over the pet needs to pay the other to help support it.

Pet custody laws are changing rapidly. If you believe a divorce is in your near future, it may serve you well to start thinking about whether you plan to share pet custody or pursue sole pet custody. An experienced family and matrimonial lawyer can help you--and your pet--find the best way to live "happily ever after."

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