For many of us, a pet is a treasured member of the family. We care for them, love them, and can become deeply attached to them.
So figuring out how to treat our pets during a divorce can be incredibly challenging. Family law courts in Georgia don’t provide much assistance. You don’t think of your beloved cat like a piece of furniture, but the divorce court will. In a divorce, a pet is a piece of property that one or the other party gets to keep.
In recent years, divorcing couples have begun creating pet custody agreements so that each of them gets to have a continued relationship with their pet.
What is a pet custody agreement?
A pet custody agreement is really a contract between two divorcing spouses for continued shared ownership of a pet. The agreement controls how they will care for and spend time with a pet after their divorce. If you create a pet custody agreement, you generally include it as part of your divorce Settlement Agreement.
The most common pet agreements are for cats and dogs, though they could be created for any type of pet — birds, lizards, horses.
Who needs a pet custody agreement?
Any divorcing couple that has a pet could benefit from a pet custody agreement. Of course, the people that are most likely to create a pet agreement are couples where both parties have a close relationship with their shared pet.
A pet agreement can ensure that both people can continue to see and spend time with the pet, and it can create certainty about how the pet will be cared for.
What does a pet agreement include?
The parties who are creating a pet custody agreement determine the provisions of the agreement.
Most commonly, a pet agreement includes:
- The name and primary information about the pet, like what type of animal it is
- Financial terms, like who is responsible for the costs of the pet’s care
- Visitation terms, like when each spouse will spend time with the pet
- Decision-making terms, including who can make medical decisions about the pet’s health care
What these provisions actually look like is entirely up to the divorcing couple. For instance, they could decide to split financial responsibilities 50/50. They could decide that each person will be responsible for financial costs that arise when the pet is in their care. Or they could decide that one person will be responsible for the cost of food and pet daycare, and the other will be responsible for medical costs. The possibilities are endless.
As with any contract, the more detailed you are in the agreement, the better. For instance, if one spouse will be spending weekends with the pet, explain exactly what “weekend” means. Is it Saturday and Sunday? Is it Friday night to Monday morning? Where will the exchange occur? For couples with children, it is common to match the pet’s schedule to the custody schedule for the kids.
How to negotiate a pet agreement
Usually when a couple is negotiating a pet agreement, it’s because both people have a strong attachment to the pet. This is not a time to get revenge on your spouse or “win” your divorce. Give careful thought to the wellbeing of your pet.
Here are a couple things to consider:
Current and future living arrangements. What will be best for your pet? Say you have a dog. You’ve always worked from home and have been able to take the dog out for a quick walk a few times a day. It might not be a good idea to have your dog spend long days in your ex’s empty apartment while they’re at work. Maybe an arrangement where the dog spends weekends with your ex would be more appropriate.
Or say you have a cat. You’ve moved into a house with roommates, one of whom also has a cat. You may want to consider whether the cats will get along before you create a joint custody agreement where you keep the cat half the time.
- The pet’s emotional attachment. You’re probably already aware of this, but pets can form strong bonds with their caretakers. If your soon-to-be-ex has snuggled with, walked, and fed the dog every day for the last five years, then the dog might be more comfortable living with them. If you still want a connection with the dog, perhaps your agreement could give you the right of first refusal for any dog sitting needs your ex has when they go out of town.
Another option would be for you to have visiting time with the dog a few hours every weekend.
How do Georgia courts treat pets in divorce?
While you may think of your pet as a member of the family, courts in most states, including Georgia, consider a pet a piece of property. If the family court judge is deciding the fate of your pet, they will lump the pet in with other property, which they will attempt to divide equitably.
If you acquired the pet during the course of your marriage, it will be considered marital property. If one of you owned the pet prior to marriage, the court may view that pet as the separate property of the person who owned it first. (Though if your spouse invested a lot of time and money into the pet, they may be able to claim it is marital.)
Even if the pet is considered marital property, courts almost never award shared ownership or joint custody. They will likely assign ownership rights to one of the divorcing parties. The judge will consider things like:
- Who has been more responsible for the pet’s care
- Who currently spends more time with the pet
- If either party has been neglectful of or abusive to the pet
The court will likely also consider current or future circumstances. For instance, if one party has moved into an apartment that doesn’t allow pets, the court probably wouldn’t award ownership to them.
What happens if someone breaks the pet custody agreement?
A pet custody agreement is a contract like any other contract. If someone breaks the terms of the agreement, the other party can sue to force their compliance.
You can include language in the pet agreement that requires mediation if either party breaks the agreement or there’s a disagreement about how to interpret the agreement.
As you can see, relying on the courts to address custody of your pet is best avoided. If you and your spouse can come to an agreement without the court, you’ll be more likely to find a solution that’s fair for both of you.
At Porchlight, we work with couples to resolve their divorces outside the courtroom. That often includes creating pet custody agreements because we know how important our furry (and feathered!) friends are. Schedule a Strategy Session today to get moving on a more peaceful divorce.