Pet custody was recently in the local news in a story by Seattle Times reporter Erik Lacitis: Kona and Mr. Bear. In that Clark County case the divorce court had originally given the wife visitation rights to two dogs that were primarily living with the husband. The Court of Appeals ruled, however, that as dogs are property, there is no allowance in the law for visitation rights. Therefore it is now up to the ex-husband to decide whether to allow the ex-wife any further contact with the dogs.
Apparently a few states (Alaska, Illinois and California) have passed laws allowing for joint ownership of animals in divorce, but not Washington State. The case may be appealed to the Washington Supreme Court, but I would not give good odds of the result changing there.
What does this mean for you? It means that if you are getting divorced and have pets that both of you want to continue to be involved with, it is important that you reach a voluntary agreement about the pets rather than trying to litigate the issue in court. At this point, the only issue the court can decide is which person will be granted possession of the pets, just like any other item of property.
Prepare for the Worst with a Settlement Agreement
I would expect that a prenuptial agreement or settlement agreement providing that the pets remain as joint property, and outlining each parties rights and responsibilities as to the pets, would be an enforceable agreement. It is basically a contract between the parties. Certainly it is not uncommon for parties to agree, for various reasons, to maintain joint ownership of a home for a period of time, even if the court would not order that in a contested matter.
Some considerations when developing a pet sharing agreement would include:
- A specific schedule with each party.
- How important decisions will be made, such as medical and end of life decisions.
- How costs will be shared.
- What happens if one party decides to move out of the area.
- A process, such as mediation, for resolving the inevitable disagreements.
While I always prefer to see couples develop their own divorce solutions outside of court, if there are pet issues, working outside of court may be the only good option. And if they hope to cooperate in reaching an agreement about their pets, they really should be working to resolve all of their divorce issues outside of court, as litigation tends to poison the waters and make reaching ANY agreements more difficult.
How to Resolve Pet Custody Conflicts
Collaborative Divorce is my preferred method for helping couples create divorce solutions. I always like to stress that the collaborative process is NOT just for highly cooperative couples, it is specifically designed to manage significant conflict for parties who do not WANT to be in conflict. In a Collaborative Divorce case, both parties hire attorneys who are trained in a collaborative process.
The attorneys will help put together a team of professionals to help the couple work through the issues and potential solutions, typically at least a financial specialist and a divorce coach. The financial specialist works with the couple to identify and value their assets and debts and can advise the couple on financial matters related to the division of those assets and debts. The divorce coach is generally a family therapist who helps the couple reduce friction so they can continue to work together to reach agreement. The lawyers advise the clients on legal matters and draft the court documents needed to put their agreements into effect.
Part of the collaborative process will involve identifying options, such as ways of co-owning the pets, and then helping the couple evaluate the options to determine which option will work best for them. That option can then be refined down to fit the circumstances and concerns of each party.
Another option for couples who do not need a high level of support in working through their divorce issues is Mediation. The mediator is a neutral whose main function is to help guide a conversation between the parties. Mediators have various methods of helping a couple get past any “stuck” points they may run into.
You should expect either Collaboration or Mediation to require multiple meetings. Professionals know that shorter meetings are more productive, and that there is often additional work that will need to be done between meetings, such as having property valued, gathering documents, getting advice, or simply thinking about the options that have been developed.
Discuss Pet Custody with the Team at Seattle Divorce Services
If you are facing a divorce where there may be difficult decisions about pets, or about any other issues, talk to one of our family law attorneys at Seattle Divorce Services. You can make an appointment by calling us at 206-784-3049 or using the contact form on our website. You may also want to review the profiles of our attorneys to see if there is one that seems like a particularly good fit for you.