What Determines Ownership of a Dog During a Divorce

Woman holding her dog

When a family breaks up and divorce proceedings begin, there is a period during which a list of assets is compiled, and decisions are made regarding who will receive what items. But when a pet is involved, it can be very difficult to determine who is allowed to retain ownership of the cherished family dog or cat. Though it would seem straightforward as to owns the family pet, proving it under the law can be extremely challenging. If you’re facing divorce and you own a dog, what determines ownership of your best canine pal when there are two parties involved?

Who Decides on the Ownership of a Dog During a Divorce?

Believe it or not, a judge is the one who will make the final decision as to who owns the family’s cherished dog or cat in the case of a divorce. Though a husband and wife may each view their pet as a member of their family, the law takes a distinctly different approach, equating dogs and cats to other household assets like furniture, cars, and clothing.

But how does a judge reach his or her decision as to who owns a dog when divorce proceedings are underway?

There are several key components that help a judge to make his or her ruling as to dog ownership in the case of a divorce. These include:

  • The dog’s registration papers and license

If a dog is registered with a kennel club such as the American Kennel Club or is adopted from a shelter, there will be a paper trail. Dogs sold by registered breeders with a governing body such as the American Kennel Club will come with registration papers that specifically list the name and address of the owner. Likewise, dogs that are adopted from a shelter or rescue will come with paperwork that clearly identifies the name of the new owner of the dog. If both people are listed as owners on the registration or adoption paperwork for a dog, the court generally finds in favor of the person who submitted the documentation to the appropriate organization.

In addition to this, most municipalities require all dogs to be properly licensed on a yearly basis. Though this paperwork may list both parties as the dog’s owners, the court will again most often determine the primary owner to be the person that filed for and paid for the municipal dog license. This is because the person that submits the paperwork and pays the corresponding fees is in essence taking responsibility for the dog and is agreeing to pay all future licensing bills and to assume all liability for the animal as well.

  • Veterinary health records

In addition to registration or adoption papers and license applications, the court will also consider the dog’s health records. During the initial visit to the dog’s new veterinary clinic, the person bringing the dog to the clinic will be asked to identify who the owner of the dog is. In some cases, both partners in a marriage will ask for their names to be included on their dog’s veterinary records. When this occurs, the judge will take this to mean that both parties were equally invested in the health and wellness of the dog.

In some instances, only one party will have their name attached to the dog’s veterinary records. Under these circumstances, the judge will then assume that that person is the dog’s primary owner.

Veterinary bills also come under scrutiny in the case of a divorce. The judge will carefully review who has paid the majority of the bills for veterinary care for the dog. The person who has undertaken the main financial responsibility for all veterinary care will be seen as the person who is the most invested in the dog.

  • Microchips

Many organizations like the American Kennel Club and the Canadian Kennel require breeders to microchip their dogs to help provide a means of identification. Microchips are particularly helpful if a dog ever goes missing, allowing a veterinarian or staff at a shelter to simply scan the dog to find out the name of the dog’s owner. The name attached to the microchip is the person the judge would consider to be the dog’s primary owner during a divorce trial.

  • Who paid for the dog

Judges will take under advisement the person who was responsible for paying for the acquisition of the dog. Since dogs are considered property in most jurisdictions, the person that purchased the dog has more rights to this particular asset than the person who simply enjoyed the company of the animal.

What are Some Other Factors Judges May Consider?

There are several other factors judges may keep in mind when trying to determine who should get custody of the family dog. These include:

  • If one party brought the dog into the marriage, the judge may decide that that person is the primary owner and should retain custody of the dog.
  • If children are involved and the children are close to the dog, the judge may side with the partner that retains primary custody of the children to allow for ongoing contact with the dog.
  • If the dog appears to be more connected to one person in the marriage than the other, that person may be awarded custody of the dog by the judge.
  • If one party travels regularly for work and thus will be away from home for extended periods of time, the other party may be given custody of the dog.

It is important to note that though judges have some leeway in whether or not to take the above matters into consideration, under most property laws, they are not required to do so.

Picture of a man and his dog

What Can Be Done if Both Parties are Listed as the Dog’s Owners on All Legal Paperwork?

If Fido was a purchase made by joint accord and financial commitment and is recorded as owned by both parties, it then becomes more difficult to determine who should retain ownership of the dog after the dissolution of the marriage. Obviously, a dog, even though considered property and thus an asset, cannot be divided so that each person gets their own “portion.” Under these circumstances, the following options may be best:

  • One person can buy out the other person’s “ownership” of the dog
  • The dog can be sold to a third party with the proceeds being split equally between the two owners
  • Both owners can share custody with a time share agreement worked out that is agreeable to both parties

What determines ownership of a dog during a divorce? There are lots of variables judges must take into consideration to make this important decision. In most cases, it is easiest for both parties to come to an agreement on their own rather than take their chances in court.

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