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What Happens to the Pets in a Divorce?

By: Janette Jordan

It’s a hard question to answer, but one that is often asked.  What happens to the pets in a divorce? As if divorces weren’t emotionally wrenching enough, the thought that you also have to decide where your pets go, or with whom, or who has the final say can be extremely difficult.  We understand that to a lot of people, the pets are part of the family.  To some, they are considered their children. But how do the courts treat them?

In Colorado, one of the most pet-friendly states in the country, the courts sadly still view pets as property, pursuant to C.R.S. 14-10-113, and something to be divided in a divorce proceeding. If children are involved, your case will naturally involve determinations of parenting time, decision-making, and child support.  When pets are involved, the courts will treat them as an asset, something to be allocated to one party or the other.  Unfortunately, we have a ways to go in recognizing our furry friends as more than property, unlike a court in a Maryland divorce with pets which actually entered custody orders regarding the family dog.  Furthermore, unlike other assets, such as a bank account, you cannot literally divide a dog or cat.

When litigating the issue of pets, which does not happen too often, there are some factors that the court may consider when determining where to place an animal in a divorce.

  • The judge may base their decision on who was the primary caregiver to the pet(s). For example, who walked the dog every morning? Who took the cat to the vet every year for a check-up?
  • The judge may look to see who can best provide care for a pet moving forward. For example, is one party planning to relocate to an apartment where outdoor space is limited? Or is one party employed in such a way that they work from home and be available for the animal?
  • The judge may look at the parties’ independent financial abilities to provide for the pet(s) moving forward. For example, if one party has a steep financial obligation to the other in the form of maintenance and/or child support, the additional expense of a pet may be too much for them to realistically bear.
  • The judge may consider who actually bought the pet during the marriage or, if a registered purebred, whose name it’s in. Of course, the court has no jurisdiction over pets that were owned prior to marriage or into the relationship prior to marriage.
  • The Judge may consider if the pet is certified or considered a support/therapy animal to one specific party.
  • Sadly, but truthfully, there may be some judges who don’t want to get involved.  There are reasons why Colorado is a no-fault divorce state.  One of the front runners is that courts do not want to get involved in people’s personal lives and pass judgments to such an intimate extent.

Divorces are messy.  Therefore, it may be in everyone’s best interests to attempt to reach a resolution through agreements, negotiation, mediation, etc. rather than gamble with the presiding authority of the judge, who may not care for animals at all.  Is one party willing to trade something in exchange for ownership of the pet? Is it possible to reach a visitation agreement involving the pet? What do you believe to be the best outcome for your pet? A divorce attorney in Denver can help you reach an agreement.

If you are ultimately able to reach a custody or visitation agreement regarding your pet, rest assured that it is every bit as enforceable as any other court order.  Just as with child custody related orders, spelling out all the specifics you can tie into a pet custody agreement is beneficial in terms of preventing ambiguity from creating arguments down the road. If parties are creating rules and guidelines for visitation with their animal, it may also behoove them to come to agreements regarding veterinary care, the cost of care, who will take the pet for care and when, etc.  With pet ownership comes responsibility, including financial responsibility. Allocating those responsibilities via a court order is the sensible thing to do. That’s all for now. I need to go feed my dogs and take them for a long, brisk walk. They know today, April 11, is “Pet Day” and their expectations are high.

Author Photo

Stephen Plog, co-founder of Plog & Stein, P.C. in 1999, is a dedicated family law attorney with almost two decades of expertise in Denver. Focused exclusively on family law since 2001, he excels in both intricate legal writing and courtroom litigation, having navigated cases in all Denver metropolitan area District Courts. Steve’s comprehensive background, including a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology and a law degree from Quinnipiac University School of Law, underscores his commitment to providing insightful and personalized representation in family law matters.