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Pets and Divorce: Are they Property or People?

 It’s an all too familiar scenario. Two spouses have been married for a number of years. Not wanting to rush into having kids, they opt instead for puppies, a pair of puppy dogs in fact. “Fur-kids” they are sometimes called. No one questions that the lovable and playful pair are as much a part of the family as real children would be.

But as the couple ages, they begin to drift apart and eventually they decide to divorce. The spouses find it easy to divide the furniture and the valuables, but what about the dogs? How can they be split apart? Which spouse gets one or the other dogs, or both dogs, or none of the dogs? What does the legal system do in this situation?

In a Washington State divorce case, pets are usually treated like any other personal property, no different than a TV or blender. Unlike human children, where the court looks to see which parent can provide the best household and which parent’s lifestyle will best satisfy the needs of each child, judges take no such inquiry when it comes to pets.

On some limited occasions, courts will consider ordering pets to be placed with one divorcing spouse or the other, but that is rare. Family law lawyers in Washington have successfully raised and argued issues like how often one party has a specific emotional or mental health condition and needs the pets as service animals. Or when a particular party usually spends with the pets versus the other; or in consideration of how emotionally close one party is to the pet. Some courts have even considered the living quarters that the pet will go to if awarded to one spouse or the other.

When the court does determine “pet parental placement,” it is not in the same as a parenting plan. A court’s pet placement is a property award, and once the divorce is finalized in court, the pet placement provisions cannot be modified like a parenting plan can. There is also no way for the court to order joint decision making in the pet’s life or to set up an enforceable visitation schedule. Legally, pets remain property and there is no jurisdiction for a Washington Family Law Court to treat them like children.

One way to avoid lengthy and potentially costly legal batters over pets is to enter into a prenuptial agreement executed before the marriage, or a postnuptial agreement, executed after the marriage. These agreements can create detailed contingencies which bind the spouses to follow a specific plan for dividing up the pets in the event of a divorce. These agreements require the involvement of at least two lawyers, who will draft and review the agreement with the respective spouses before it is signed.

The bottom line is that pet owners have to never forget that while pets are often thought of as our “babies,” legally, they are not. And while the law is moving in the direction of recognizing our pets as family members, it is not quite there yet. If you want to be a truly responsible pet parent, make sure to predetermine who will care for your pets in the unlikely event of a divorce.

The Law Firm of Lustick, Kaiman & Madrone in Bellingham accepts clients for family law issues including divorce, dissolution of marriage, child custody, child support, property distribution in a divorce, and prenuptial and postnuptial agreements. Call (360) 685-4221 for an office consultation today, and please see our website at

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