Dog Custody: What Happens to Pets in a Breakup?

Dividing property as part of a divorce is almost always a challenge; for separating couples, the distribution of property can feel like a zero-sum game that no one wants to lose. In some cases, though, it's not simply a matter of valuating assets and determining how to fairly divide these assets — some items cannot be divided and seemingly have no price, such as animals.

Increasingly, divorcing couples are including custody of their pets as part of their settlement agreements determining division of property. The terms may vary widely; a divorcing couple may choose to split custody, give custody to one person but allow for visitation rights, or choose to give one person sole control over an animal. If multiple animals are involved, a couple may choose to divide the animals.

Michigan Law Regarding Pet Disputes

Despite the fact that the term "custody" is used, when these disputes must be litigated in courts, they are very different than traditional custody battles. In a courtroom, animals are treated like any other form of personal property. The court will seek to divide all of the property, including the animals, in a "fair and equitable" manner. For example, the court may consider the conduct of the two people and their contributions to the care and maintenance of the animal.

In 2008, Michigan state Rep. Michael Sak introduced legislation that would have detailed how custody of pets is to be determined during a divorce. Under Sak's proposal, people filing for divorce would have had to list their pets. For couples who had resolved custody issues, the law would have required the custody agreement to be filed with the court. In the event that a divorcing couple was unable to settle pet custody disputes, the judge would be authorized to make the decision.

Ultimately the proposal was unsuccessful and many questioned the necessity for such a law. After all, most divorcing couples in Michigan have managed to resolve these issues without a specific law. However, Michigan is not the only state where such proposals have appeared; others legislators have also acknowledged the difficulty of determining the custody of pets in a divorce.

When a Professional's Help Is Needed

Although it may be impossible to prevent all disputes over pet custody, working with a knowledgeable Michigan family law attorney can help anyone going through a divorce and property division. For more information regarding the division of property as part of a divorce, contact an experienced lawyer.