A Dog Sitting Between a Divorcing CoupleWhen it comes to separation and divorce in Virginia, things are rarely simple. You may have bought a home and raised children together. But, what happens to the family dog? How does Virginia law treat custody of family pets, like dogs and cats? The reality is that, no matter how much you love them, pets are treated as property in Virginia. They’re no different than jewelry or the family minivan.

Whether it’s an uncontested or contested divorce, it can be difficult to decide who gets to keep the family pet. To many people, pets are more than objects. There is a strong emotional bond and a pet is a living, breathing animal. This is one of the many reasons why you need a divorce lawyer experienced in family law on your side.

Pets Are Property, Not Children

In a divorce, the courts consider the well-being of the children in deciding child custody. They keep the child’s best interests at heart. So, they may decide one partner gets sole custody. Or, they may decide on joint custody. The courts can lay out the rules for legal visitation rights and child support payments.

Many people view their pets as a member of the family. Virginia divorce law sees them differently. A dog, cat, horse, rabbit, or parrot is personal property. As such, they follow the laws for the equitable distribution of property. Property acquired during the marriage is subject to the guidelines of the division of marital property. If you got the pet together, it’s marital property.

If one spouse got the pet before the marriage, then it is considered separate property. The partner who brought the pet into the marriage probably gets to keep it. This is the same as any retirement savings one partner may have had before they got married. Savings held in a joint account created after marriage would be shared equitably.

During the divorce proceedings, you may not agree with your spouse about who keeps the pet. In that case, the court may decide for you. If you want to keep the pet after divorce, you may have to fight for it. An experienced family law attorney in Virginia can help. The courts will not get involved in the shared custody of a pet. As property, the pet goes to one partner or the other fully.

What the Courts May Consider

If you cannot agree on who keeps ownership of the pet, the courts may decide for you. They may look to the pet as a purely financial asset. In that case, the courts may take several factors into consideration.

  • Who owned the pet before the couple got married?
  • Who got the pet in the first place?
  • Who has been primarily responsible for pet care?
  • Who takes the pet for walks or to the vet?
  • Who does the pet prefer or is most attached to?
  • Who is home more often?
  • Has either spouse abused or neglected the pet?
  • Are there children involved? Should the pet stay with the children?
  • Who will have adequate space and resources to care for the pet?
  • Is the pet a companion animal for therapeutic reasons or disability assistance?

In making this decision, the courts may estimate a market value for the pet. A purebred show dog with championship bloodlines may be valued higher than a rescue dog. If the courts decide one spouse gets the pet, they may offer other financial assets to the other partner to balance the division of assets. The court may even order the pet to be sold to divide the asset based on monetary value.

Dividing assets goes hand-in-hand with dividing debt in a divorce. If there are outstanding vet bills or other expenses, the courts will take these into consideration too.

How a Lawyer Can Help You Keep Your Pet

It is imperative to seek the advice and help of a family law attorney during a divorce. Even in an uncontested divorce, the division of property can get messy. This includes deciding who gets to keep a family pet after the divorce. An experienced Virginia lawyer can help you stay with your pet if that is your goal.

Let your lawyer know about your priorities. Divorce often involves give-and-take. If you want to keep the pet, what is something lower on your priority list you are willing to sacrifice? Your lawyer can then work hard to help you keep ownership of your pet, while also working to divide your other marital property fairly.

Your lawyer can help gather documents and build the case for why you deserve to keep your pet. This can involve adoption papers, vet bills, pet license and registration papers, witness testimony, and more. It can be an emotional time. Let your attorney advocate for you.