Over two thirds of Americans take their dog to the vet more often than they visit the doctor. Almost a quarter of Americans bring their dog to work and three quarters of us have signed a greeting card for our pet. I’m guilty of the last one. Our family dog, Jake, is not the best with pens.

Pets are a big deal in the US, so what happens to pets in Washington during a divorce? A pet’s life after divorce is dependent on its owners. In the best cases, owners draft their own legal arrangement, which covers pet parenting, vet bills and decision-making. If the issue goes to court, the outcome will depend on the judge. Washington law designates pets as personal property and most times a judge will simply award the pet to one spouse or the other. However, it is becoming more common for judges to treat pets more like family members and consider what is best for the pet.

If you’re going through a Washington divorce or legal separation and you’re worried about your family pet this article will cover how to make a pet parenting plan, what to expect if the issue goes to court, and the evidence to compile if you need to show ownership.

Topics

  1. Best Solution To Pet Custody
  2. What To Expect In Court
  3. Establishing Rights To Your Pet

Best Solution To Pet Custody

If you’re a fan of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia you may have seen Charlie Kelly dabble in the law. While he usually makes a mess of things he does get this right, “bird law in this country, it’s not governed by reason.”

As mentioned above, the law will treat your pet like property. So whether you’re trying to take care of your pet bird, dog or cat, the best solution for your pet is to reach an agreement outside of court.

A good pet-parenting plan should include the following components:

  • Pet Schedule
  • Pet Costs (Food, Veterinarian, Groomers, etc.)
  • Decision-making authority
  • Drop off pick up schedule
  • Agreement if a spouse moves away
Pet Schedule

The primary purpose of a pet-parenting plan is to lay out the times each person will spend with a pet. In addition, to a weekly schedule you can make special arrangements for holidays or birthdays. The schedule can be as simple or complex as you like.

Here are a couple schedules that might work for you:

  • Alternate every other week.
  • One spouse is the primary parent and the other takes the pet whenever that spouse is out of town. There will be times when you need a pet-sitter and letting someone who cares about the animal watch them should be good for everyone.
  • The pet lives with each spouse for half the year. For example, if one spouse prefers to spend their free time outdoors, maybe summer and fall is a good time for them to have the dog.

The key to good parenting plans, whether for children or pets, is that the plan is specific. A specific plan reduces uncertainty. Uncertainty can cause miscommunication and frustration, which you don’t want because those feelings can lead to a mediator’s office or a courtroom.

That said, a good place to start is to look at sections 8 through 11 of the Washington parenting plan. Not everything translates, but you should be able to get some ideas as to the level of detail you should include.

As you can see, many people make specific plans for important days. For example, each spouse may designate his or her birthday as a day to spend with the pet. Similarly, they may alternate every other year of the pet’s birthday. Sometimes spouse’s agree to give the day before a pet’s birthday to the other on off-years.

Pet Costs

You’ll also want to designate who will cover the costs related to the pet. It’s smart to anticipate not just typical costs like check ups at the vet, grooming and food, but costs from accidents.

My good friend co-parents his dog with an ex-girlfriend and not too long ago on a hike through eastern Washington his dog yelped. We found her in the sagebrush shortly after with a muzzle full of porcupine quills. My friend didn’t have an agreement in place about who would cover vet bills in the event of an accident.

For emergency costs, the bill can be the responsibility of the owner who had the pet at the time. Alternatively, you can agree to split the costs evenly. Lastly, you can both agree to split pet insurance to reduce costs if something does occur.

For regular costs, like pet food and grooming, most spouses agree to either divide costs evenly or based on how much each spouse makes. It’s often smart to put caps in place, just in case your willingness to spend money on things like pet food differs from your spouse’s.

Overall, just make sure to include any specific costs you currently pay and how those costs will be split. Otherwise, you may have to have an uncomfortable conversation, which could make joint pet ownership more difficult. 

Decision Making Authority

Giving one owner decision-making authority is smart in order for joint custody to last and for owners to stay on amicable terms. Decision making can cover a broad range of subjects: 1) where to board the pet if you’re out of town, 2) which veterinarian to visit, 3) type of food, or 4) end of life decisions.

You have the option to jointly to agree to these too, but I think giving one owner decision-making authority is best. At some point, you may disagree and it is simplest if you’ve already decided who has final say in that area. Otherwise, if there is a disagreement you may have to pay for outside help.

Drop Off Pick Up Schedule 

Be specific about what time and where pick ups will occur. Typically, it is best for the person who is about to start time with the pet to be responsible for pick up. That way the animal will be in a safe place if for some reason they can’t make it.

When you’re deciding on a pet schedule keep in mind that each time you exchange your pet you’ll likely be in contact with your ex-spouse. This can be hard for some people. If you think this may cause problems for you, consider exchanging at a pet day care or reduce the amount of exchanges by increasing the time a pet spends with one person before trading off.

Plan For A Move

Lastly, you’ll want to agree to a plan if a spouse moves away (100+ miles). While difficult, some people agree that a moving spouse forfeits their time with the pet, since exchanging the pet would be too difficult.

If that sounds harsh, you could agree that if a pet owner moves 100+ miles away then the pet-parenting schedule automatically changes. In these cases, the owners typically have the pet for longer periods of time before exchanging the animal. Remember to include who will pay travel costs to move your pet back and forth if the distance is substantial.

What To Expect In Court

If you can’t work it out between yourselves you can bring up the issue in court. What to expect is hard to say. The court can treat the situation in one of two ways, but it will depend on the judge.

Property Claim

At the moment, pets are considered personal property in Washington. What this means for your case is that the court will likely award the pet to one party over the other. If there are multiple pets a court is likely to divide them between the owners, which may be bad for the pets. There will be no parenting plan.

If the dog is a valuable breed a court may assign a dollar amount to the dog. The dog would have a dollar value just like the tv when dividing property, but in the end the concept of shared custody is out.

If you think you can work out some sort of shared arrangement between yourselves do so. Otherwise, you run the risk of not being able to see your pet at all.

Parenting Rights

On the other hand, a minority of judges take pet custody seriously and will listen to arguments that portray pets like members of the family. In these scenarios, it’s important to show your emotional connection to the animal and vice versa. If you can show the court that time with you will benefit both you and the animal you have a much better chance of getting time with the pet.

It’s important to plan for both arguments if your case is heading to trial. Of course, you may not know which type of judge you’ll get until you’re in the courtroom.

Establishing Rights To Your Pet

If you need to tell your side of the story in court or mediation here are the important issues to consider:

  • Was the dog around before the marriage? If you or your spouse acquired the dog before the marriage the dog is separate property and the original owner will have the right to the dog.
  • Who is the animal’s primary caretaker? Get a hold of vet bills, bills from the groomer, receipts from the pet store for food and other costs. These prove you’ve been caring for the animal.
  • Who trained the animal? Look for items like a certificate of graduation from a puppy training class or even photos to show you trained your pet.
  • Where will you be living after the divorce and what is your schedule? Show you have a yard or access to a dog park in your area. In addition, show that your work schedule is fit for animal ownership or that you can bring your pet to work.
  • If there are children, where will they be living? The children often have strong bonds with their pets and a court is likely to take this into account, keeping the pet with the kids.
  • What sort of bond do you have with your pet? Find picture and video evidence, which shows your connection with the animal. Focus on proof before the divorce was filed.
  • Is there proof of ownership? Sometimes this can come from pet registration or the owner listed on a pet’s microchip. On that same note, the pet may have been a gift to one of the spouse’s, which would establish ownership.

Conclusion

Hopefully you now have a good understanding of how divorce commissioners treat family pets and you can see that the best course of action is to come up with your own arrangement outside the courtroom. If you have any questions about your family pet in divorce please give me a call at 206.409.4086 or send me an email.

Cheers,
Justin