9.7Susan M. Hais

Family pets can complicate a divorce. In Missouri, they are property, but their value and assignment are considered differently than other types of property. Here are some of the issues related to the family pet that need to be considered before decisions are made.

A service animal is a specially trained animal, usually a dog, who can provide specific tasks for a person with disabilities. A service animal will almost always go with their disabled owner. Emotional support and therapy pets will also usually go with the specific person for whom they are providing support. Some assignment or discussion of the animal being an emotional support animal will help establish this relationship before legal proceedings begin.

For family pets, considerations include who bought the pet, who is the usual caregiver, and if the pet has a relationship with the children. A shared custody arrangement with the children may include allowing the children access to the family pet.

Whichever party becomes the custodian of the family pet needs to provide adequate support, a home, and medical care. There may be a clause that if the custodian or owner of the pet decides to sell or give away the pet, they offer the animal first to other members of the family.

In the event of an incident of domestic violence or violence to children or animals, a family member may petition to have the pets not given into the custody of the person with a history of violent behavior.

Having access to the family home is not usually reason enough to make a decision about ownership of a family pet. Many people in apartments and in shared living arrangements have pets without undue hardship. In the past, decisions regarding placement of the family pet usually went with the custodial parent of minor children, if a relationship existed between the children and the pet. This is not automatic, however, and there have been many successful co-ownership arrangements for pets after the divorce. It is worth carefully considering living arrangements and working hours when thinking of the best placement for a dog or other pet. Many rental apartments and houses have breed and weight restrictions, which may complicate the ability of one family member finding adequate housing if they own a family pet and are searching for housing.

Family pets may be a complicating factor when considering shared property. Consider discussing your concerns with an experienced family law attorney. Contact our expert attorneys to get help navigating this and other issues related to family law.