“Until one has loved an animal a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.” – Anatole France
Wedding china, dining room table, artwork collection… pets? As most of the United States today, Tennessee included, continues to deem pets as personal property, many divorcing pet owners will face the question, “Where will Fido go?” This question is particularly important for couples who acquired pets during the marriage and, as many pet owners can attest, consider them to be fundamental members of the family. In this situation, divorcing parties are typically expected to separately address and agree to an equitable division of all “other items” of tangible personal property – “umbrella” language commonly found in divorce settlement agreements – under which pets fall.
Despite traditionally itemizing Fido between the Instant Pot and the outdoor patio set, the issue of pet ownership in divorce proceedings is, in fact, becoming an increasingly popular topic in family law throughout the country. Similar to child custody disputes, divorcing parties may want to first discuss how to best maintain the status quo for the pet(s) post-divorce. If both parties have equally contributed to the well-being, care, and financial responsibility of the pet(s), will be in the position to continue same after the divorce finalization, and neither wishes to forfeit ownership and/or visitation rights, they may find an informal pet agreement to be a feasible solution.
When reaching an informal pet agreement, it is imperative that divorcing parties thoroughly discuss and consider all factors at play, particularly if multiple pets were acquired during the marriage. In this scenario, divorcing pet owners may weigh either a “full custody” or “joint custody” agreement. A “full custody” agreement would award each spouse sole ownership of the mutually agreed upon pet(s) and would relinquish the other spouse of all claims to said pet(s). The parties may find this arrangement to be an equitable division and, ultimately, in the best interests of the pets and parties. Alternatively, other owners may find a “joint custody” arrangement more desirable by way of equally splitting visitation rights, decision-making, and financial obligations for all pets in question.
Furthermore, divorcing parties may choose to adopt an informal pet agreement that marries both full and joint custody arrangements. For example, the parties may choose to each maintain “full custody” of his or her designated pet(s), but serve the role of caretaker for the opposing party’s pet(s) in the event of travel and/or extenuating circumstances. This particular arrangement may best apply to parties in uncontested divorces who are able to maintain effective communication, mutual respect, and sole focus on the well-being of the pets. In one specific example in Tennessee, the divorced parties agreed to retain “full custody” of one dog each, accepting all responsibilities that this would entail, but to exercise visitation by way of caretaking on an “as needed” basis. This agreement allows the parties to not only avoid potentially excessive boarding expenses, but also to preserve the bond shared with the “non-custodial” dog.
Ultimately, decisions regarding informal pet agreements should be made on a case-by-case basis, acknowledging that the laws regarding pet custody may vary by state.