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Who Gets the Dog in a Divorce?

Jenifer Hargrave of Hargrave Family Law was a guest on CW33’s Morning After, hosted by Jenny Anchondo. The topic under discussion was pets and divorce.

Watch the interview or jump to the highlights below:

Is it common for pets to be discussed in a divorce?

Like many people, CW33 host Jenny Anchondo had not considered the question of pet custody agreements in divorce before, but Jennifer shared with her that it’s really not uncommon for pet custody to come up, especially in divorces that feature children because the kids get so attached to their pets. She added that in the state of Texas, pets are treated as property, and it often surprises people that their beloved fur family is regarded as just a piece of property.

Pets can add complexity to divorce negotiations

Jenny referenced a report by one of the matrimonial divorce academies which cited a 65% increase in divorce business in general and then coupled that statistic with the fact that a vast number of people got a dog during the pandemic. Even those who had never owned a pet before got one during the lockdown. And while, as Jenny said, this is a beautiful thing, it does add complexity to couples who are considering separating or divorcing after bringing that new pet into their family.

Jennifer agreed that, yes, dogs, cats, or other pets are one more thing for people to argue over once they start thinking about divorce. She said that if possible, have the ‘pet talk’ before marriage. Discuss in the event of divorce, who gets the pets? Jennifer says, be realistic. Conflict over pets can get really expensive, especially the more intricate and detailed the arrangements are.

Do people ever agree to share a pet after a divorce?

As an experienced divorce attorney, Jennifer says that shared pet possession agreements are addressed from time to time, but it’s also important to look at costs. Pets can get really expensive. Who’s going to pay for boarding? Who’s going to pay for the vet bills, who is going to make decisions if the dog gets cancer?  What if one of you wants to undergo the expense of treatment and the other one doesn’t. These issues can get really complex. It’s important to talk about, and maybe ask if, instead of sharing possession of one pet, whether getting another pet would resolve the issue.

Laughing, and faux-horrified, Jenny exclaimed that pets are irreplaceable so for her, getting another pet would not work.

Will pets ever be considered more than property?

Jennifer explained that there are jurisdictions where pets have more rights and even in the state of Texas, pets can be included in a protective order. Jennifer says that her only caution is that, again, pets are one more thing to argue over and can increase conflict. She said that we should be smart about what we decide to argue over, although, depending on the pet owner, the fight might be worth it to them. As a divorce attorney, Jennifer says that she does not make that judgment.

Should pets be part of a prenuptial agreement?

Pets and what will happen to them should the marriage come to an end, is a good thing to talk about before you get married. Do you want to have pets? Are you a cat person? Are you a dog person? In Texas, if you have a pet before marriage, generally speaking, that pet is your pet. But you still need to have a common understanding as to how much money is going to be spent on the pet. Pets can get super expensive and people don’t always agree. So yes, if you’re doing a premarital agreement, that’s something you might want to address as part of your premarital discussions.

What happens if a pet is added after marriage, and is not included in the premarital agreement?

Jenny admitted that she was not sure how prenups work, and wondered what would happen if somebody already had a prenup, and then got a dog or cat after the marriage. Do they go back and add mention of the pet to the prenup?

Jennifer answered that in that case, the ownership of the pet would depend on what was already agreed in the premarital agreement. Some prenups say there’s going to be no community property. In which case, whoever paid for the pet, owns the pet. If the prenup says there is going to be community property, then we would divide the pet, like we divide other assets, but you can see the challenge there. It’s awfully hard to value a pet!

Do couples often keep entirely seperate finances?

Jenny wondered how often couples decided to keep their finances entirely separate and Jennifer answered that it was often the case, particularly if somebody was going into their second marriage, or they have a large family estate.