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Who keeps a pet in divorce?

There’s no doubt that people in Massachusetts and throughout the U.S. love their pets. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, as many as 47 percent of U.S. households own a dog and up to 37 percent a cat. For many of the individuals, couples and families who own a dog or cat, their animal companion is viewed as being much more than just a pet. It can be particularly difficult, therefore, when a couple decides to split and decisions related to the custody of a pet must be decided.

Custody cases involving pets are not only becoming more common, but also increasingly contentious. By far, dogs are the subjects of the majority of these cases and many desperate dog owners are willing to work out shared custody and even pet support agreements to keep a pet in their lives.

While many dog and cat owners may view their pets as family members, in a divorce, a pet is treated the same as any other piece of personal property. Therefore, in cases where divorcing spouses aren't able to agree about who should retain ownership of a pet, a judge will be forced to rule in the matter and he or she is likely to take a number of factors into consideration prior to making a final decision.

A judge will want to know if a pet was purchased or acquired before or during a marriage as well as which spouse performed the lion's share of caretaking duties. Because a dog cannot testify or vouch for either owner, it's important to be able to produce evidence such as paid veterinarian bills, pet store receipts and even affidavits from neighbors attesting to who primarily walks or takes a dog to the park. Additionally, in divorce cases involving children, a judge will likely take into account any existing custody arrangements and attempt to keep a pet with the kids.

In divorce cases where pet custody is an issue, a divorce attorney can assist in gathering evidence and building an individual's case for why he or she should retain ownership of a pet.

Source: Reuters, "In divorce and custody battles, now it's about the dog," Chris Taylor, Aug. 12, 2015

Forbes, "How Are Pets Handled In Divorce," Jeff Landers, April 17, 2016

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