For some of us, our pets are like family. Unfortunately, when it comes to separation and divorce, the question of who will keep the family pet may become as contentious as a custody battle for the parties’ children.
In 2011, the Virginia Court of Appeals weighed in on this issue in deciding the divorce case of Whitmore v. Whitmore. In Whitmore, both parties loved their family dog and evidence was presented as to how both the husband and wife took care of the dog. The husband went so far as requesting the trial court award him sole possession of the dog or award share possession of the dog and establish a visitation schedule. The trial court found that the dog was a marital asset and marital property. It further reasoned that it was “ill-advised” to have visitation or shared custody of an asset. As a result, the court awarded the wife the dog, as it had always resided with the wife, and awarded the husband $750.00 for the costs of the dog so he could acquire a dog “of like kind.” On appeal, the Virginia Court of Appeals confirmed the trial court’s ruling awarding the wife the family pet and not establishing a visitation schedule. More recently, the Virginia state legislature addressed the issues of a companion animal when it expanded the relief that may be requested in a protective order statute. As a result, now the court may grant a petitioner in a family abuse protective order possession of a companion animal, if the petition meets the definition of an owner. An owner is defined under the law as a person who i) has a right of property in an animal; (ii) keeps or harbors an animal; (iii) has an animal in his care; or (iv) acts as a custodian of an animal. In summary, in cases of who should keep the family pet, the courts will treat the animal like any other marital asset, rather than like one of the children. As a result, it is wise to speak to an attorney about how to deal with the family pet in a family law matter. If you have further questions, then call the Dua Law Firm for representation.