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Animal and Pet Rights in Divorce

When you a person or a family who loves your pets, it is common for you to argue vigorously over who will get to keep the pets. As we know, pets can become so important that they like a member of our family!  Unfortunately, as pets have developed an increasing importance in our family units, the law has not necessarily grown with the important role that many pets have today.

Under Missouri and Kansas divorce laws, a pet is personal property.  A family pet is sadly treated exactly the same as any other material item in the home. Obviously, if there have been situations or concerns of animal cruelty then this can be raised in a different way to the judge involved, however, many situations of disputes about where the family pet should go do not involve animal cruelty. It is common when a couple divorces if there pet is a valued member of their family, that the couple will disagree about who the pet should be awarded to after a divorce and how the pet should be cared for.

In an effort to decide which spouse will receive the ownership of personal property, including pets in a divorce process, the court will generally look to several factors in Kansas and Missouri divorces. Generally, when the court is trying to equitably divide assets, this includes personal property. General principles of property division will apply to personal property, and therefore, pets. For example, if a pet was given to one party as a gift, that property, including a family pet can be set aside to the party gifted the item (the pet). After looking at all of the relevant property division factors, if the parties cannot come to an agreement, the court will ultimately have to make a decision about which property belongs to which party (again, with a family pet being considered personal property). 

In some circumstances, using judicial discretion, some courts have started to try to engage in a more in-depth analysis in trying to figure out pet custody in a similar way as how the court would determine child custody. In the situations, the court will look at the overriding circumstance of the “best interests” of the dog or other pet at issue. Generally, in a child custody situation, the court will look to a variety of factors including where the child prefers to live, who can best meet the child’s needs, the health and living patterns of each parent and other similar factors. Similarly, the court, in conducting a best interests analysis related to pets, may look at similar issues in trying to determine where a pet may prefer to live, who the pet is most bonded to, who has time in their schedule to care for the pet (as opposed to a spouse that travels frequently for work and other similar considerations), who has traditionally cared for the pets and even spent time with the pets. The court also has the ability to consider other unique or special considerations such as if there will be other dogs in the home that do not get along well with the animal at issue, if there is a lack of safe, fenced yard area for the animal and the like.  It is important to note, however, that given pets’ status as personal property, the court is not required to consider the animal’s best interests in making an ultimate award of the family pet.

In some situations, courts have determined that the best outcome for both, the pet, as well as each spouse is award some form of shared custody of the animal(s) to both spouses. In other scenarios, the spouses agree to a shared custody arrangement of the pet, deciding that neither want to risk the unbearable possibility that the animal would be awarded to the other spouse and they would not see their beloved pet again in the future.  Still other courts have awarded some form of visitation to the non-custodial pet owner. Given animals’ classifications as personal property, there is not legal authority for many of the creative solutions that judges, mediators and other family lawyers have developed in trying to solve these problems and yet, there have been surprisingly few appeals on these issues, again, likely because neither spouse wants to risk the unthinkable possibility that rather than sharing custody of an animal, one spouse will win big and have sole possession while the other spouse will lose big and never see the pet again. 

At Pingel Family Law, we are hopeful that the law related to animals and family pets will continue to develop in the future so that we have additional legal precedent and eventually, perhaps statutory guidance for how to address custodial pet issues. For the present time, the attorneys at Pingel Family Law pride ourselves in finding and seeking unique solutions that advocate for your goals and help keep your family, including the most treasured family pets, intact as a family unit. Let us put our knowledgeable advocacy to work for you and your treasured pet. Call our team today to schedule your consultation at (816) 208-8130.

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