When we think of a family unit, we usually think of parents and children. Perhaps we include grandparents, stepparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, too. But for families across the country, more and more people are including furry, four-legged companions into that circle. When a couple divorces, the question of “Who keeps the dog?” can be almost as contentious as who will be the primary residential parent, or who will keep the family china.
So, it should come as no surprise, perhaps, that a new amendment to the law in Alaska now asks the court to consider the best interests of the family pet when a couple breaks up. The Washington Post reports that “Alaska [is] the first state in the country to require courts to take ‘into consideration the well-being of the animal’ and to explicitly empower judges to assign joint custody of pets…. [and] to include pets in domestic violence protective orders and requires the owners of pets seized in cruelty or neglect cases to cover the cost of their shelter.”
Pets: property or “people”?
In 2015, The Harris Poll reported that 95% of pet owners considered their animals to be members of the family, a trend not specific to any one state. We’ve seen it with folks we know outside of work and clients we represent: people buy their pets birthday gifts, or spend more money on high-grade food than they would for themselves. Even the Home Depot here in Maryville lets you bring your dog. All signs point to “yes,” people really do think that pets are family members.
In Tennessee, however, the laws have not changed to meet this growing trend. If you and your partner start divorce proceedings, Fido isn’t factored into your parenting plans: he’s a piece of property, to be divided just like the car, the house or the teaspoon collection. If you and your spouse cannot reach an agreement about who keeps the pets, the court will make that decision for you. And unless one of you brought your pet into the family home, there may be no clear-cut reason to grant you access to that pet once the divorce is final – especially if your spouse took care of day-to-day activities for the animals, including feeding, walking, grooming, vet visits and training.
If you know in your heart you’re a better “pet parent” than your spouse, or if you believe you have a stronger case for keeping the family furballs, that’s something we can discuss as we go through the process of your divorce. At Shepherd & Associates, P.C., we help clients create agreements that ensure an equitable and fair distribution of their assets. To schedule your consultation with an experienced Maryville divorce attorney, please call us at 865.2258.9655, or fill out our contact form.