Occasionally, a client will bring up an issue concerning visitation or ownership of a family pet, such as a dog or a cat. The relationships between pet owners and their pets can run very deep, as many individuals cherish their furry friends as much as they would their own children. Unfortunately, when it comes to Arizona family law, pets are treated as personal property. This means that when animals are acquired during the course of a marriage, they are presumptively community property and each spouse has a property interest in that animal. This can get very messy when a marriage ends since, legally, the court may be tasked with equitably dividing all the property of the marital community. This means that one party or the other might end up with the family pet(s), and the driving factors are mainly financial, rather than emotional.
There are some practical considerations to keep in mind. Just as divorcees can continue to co-own a house or a business, they may continue to co-own an animal together. Sometimes, parties will try to work out a pet “custody” or “visitation” agreement. However, while Arizona law may enforce a contract as to the shared use of property, that contract is not different in nature simply because it involves a cherished animal. In other words, the laws that pertain to child visitation and custody do not apply to court orders regarding the “visitation” of a pet. While it is certainly possible that a court might sanction an individual for disobeying a court order regarding the shared “use” of a pet, courts can be somewhat reluctant to harshly punish parties over such violations the same way they might the violation of a child custody order.
That said, there are some things you can do to better protect your property interest in one or more family pets. One method is to get ahead of a future dispute by working out a premarital or post-marital agreement regarding how pets will be treated in the case of a divorce, annulment, or legal separation. If you do not have such an agreement, and find yourself in the middle of a pet “custody” battle in family court, consider the use of mediation or other alternative dispute resolution services. In such a setting, the parties can try to get creative about finding a solution to their dispute. In mediation, the parties can focus on their relationship to the pet, which might not otherwise matter to the court in final evidentiary hearing.
Ultimately, if you cannot arrive at a voluntary agreement regarding the how to handle a pet through the divorce, the court will have to make a final decision. It can help your case for ownership of the pet, if you can show the court that you were the pet’s primary caretaker during the course of your marriage. Similarly, you can appeal the court’s sensibilities by demonstrating that you are better suited to care for the pet moving forward and/or that the pet would thrive better in your care. Finally, it is sometimes persuasive to show that the pet is bonded with a minor child in the case, who lives primarily in your care. In such instances, you might argue that it is in that child’s best interest not to be separated from the pet.
If you are considering initiating or are involved in a family court action which involves ownership of a pet, and need the guidance of an experienced and compassionate law firm, do not hesitate to contact Huffman-Shayeb Law, PLLC to set up a consultation and discuss your options.
Disclaimer: This publication is for educational and informational purposes only, and represents Huffman-Shayeb Law, PLLC’s understanding of the present state of Arizona law. This publication does not constitute legal advice or council, and should not be construed as a comment on the merits of any particular case. It should be noted that the laws and requirements of the State of Arizona may change at any time and that this information may not be complete or correct.