Legal Corner

For most people, pets are considered a part of the family. But what happens to them when the family splits up? Area attorneys tell us there are no special laws in place concerning pets during divorce, at least in Missouri.

“Obviously, people are attached to their pets and love their pets,” says Kirk Stange of Stange Law Firm, PC. “I’ve been attached to my pets through the years; and some pet lovers out there don’t like this, but in Missouri, pets are treated as property.” During a divorce case, property is generally divided, and the same goes for pets. If both parties want possession of the pet, he says the court can take various factors into account, such as whether the pet was owned by one of the spouses prior to the marriage, whether the pet has a special relationship with a child, and whether one spouse is the pet’s primary caretaker. “The biggest factor would be the kids, if the kids have a special attachment with the pet,” he says.

Stange adds that there has been a push in some states for special consideration to be given for pets, such as a law that was debated in Connecticut recently that would have appointed animal advocates in pet custody cases, to ensure the pets’ best interests. And more such debates might continue to pop up, as the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers found in a recent survey that 27 percent of lawyers have noticed an increase in the number of disputes over pets in the past five years.

Couples also can address their pets in pre-marital agreements, which is more common in cases of rare or highly valuable pets, notes Sam Hais of Hais, Hais & Goldberger. “Those agreements are tricky, and they have to be executed properly, so you want to go to somebody who knows what they’re doing,” Hais notes. Disputes aren’t limited to pets of extremely high value, though. “We once had a client who was adamant, and so was his wife, about their King Charles spaniel; and between the two of them, they must have spent $2,000 to $3,000 litigating over their pet,” he says. “It was a nice little dog, but most people would not contemplate spending that sum of money over the ownership of an animal. Ultimately, it was resolved. These disputes can happen for all kinds of understandable reasons; for example, sometimes people can’t have children, and pets become surrogates for a child.”

Spouses often have different opinions over who has a stronger bond with the pet. “It’s not uncommon that one party thinks, It’s our pet, and the other party thinks, You gave it to me, or We got it because I wanted it. As with any other item of personal property, it’s a matter of proof as to how the pet was acquired,” says Cary Mogerman of Zerman Mogerman LLC. “We do from time to time see situations where the parties may in their agreement work out specific provisions for shared possession—and I would call it possession, not custody, since it’s not a child.”

Hais, who previously served as a family court judge, agrees that while shared possession agreements are rare, they aren’t outside the realm of possibility. “When I was on the bench, I used to call it the rule of reasonability,” he notes. “If it seems reasonable and it’s on everyone’s radar as being worthy of negotiation, and the result is beneficial, then usually you can work around anything.”