The Family Pet: Sharing Custody After Your Divorce

You are getting a divorce, and you know you need to deal with the division of assets, liabilities, and spousal support. If you have children, the issues of a parenting plan and child support will certainly be discussed. But what about the family pet? Pets are often integral members of the family, and determining where they will live and be cared for after you and your spouse separate requires careful consideration.

Here are some practical steps and considerations from a recent episode of A Better Divorce Podcast, Mediating Pet Disputes in Divorce with Debra Hamilton. Debra is the principal at Hamilton Law & Mediation, PLLC, the nation’s first solo mediation practice dedicated to helping people resolve conflicts over animals.

First and foremost, remember that your pet’s well-being needs to be at the forefront of your decision-making process. During the podcast, Debra told us that pets, especially dogs and cats, can be sensitive to changes in their environment and routine. You and your spouse will need to evaluate how different living arrangements might impact them. Some pets may not handle frequent transitions well and might thrive better in a stable, single-home environment. A pet that lived in a single-family home and was used to having an abundance of space and a backyard may not adjust well to city living (or vice versa).

Open communication after a divorce with your ex is essential. You should begin by discussing the importance of the pet to both of you and to any children who may be living at home. Acknowledge that each family member has an attachment and contributes to your pet’s care. Recognizing that the pet is loved by each of you can facilitate more empathetic and less adversarial discussions.

If you are both committed to sharing custody, you will want to establish a clear and workable schedule. During the podcast, Debra Hamilton explained that you should consider factors such as work schedules, living arrangements, transportation issues, and your pet’s routine. Arrangements may include having your pet move in accordance with the same schedule as your children, or the pet alternating weeks or months with you both. You will want to ensure that the schedule minimizes stress for the pet and allows ample time for bonding with both owners.

Discussing and agreeing upon financial responsibilities is another important step. Pet care can be costly, including food, grooming, veterinary care, dog walking services, and insurance. You will want to agree on how these expenses are to be shared. If your pet will be living primarily in one home with the other pet owner having rights to visit or care for the pet semi-regularly, the primary owner might take on a larger share of the financial responsibilities and the non-primary owner’s contributions may be limited to a share of significant expenses, such as extraordinary medical care.

Pets can respond in different ways to custody arrangements over time. It is important to schedule regular check-ins to assess how the arrangement is working. Debra recommends that check-ins occur every three, six, or nine months. These check-ins can help determine if adjustments are needed to better suit the pet’s needs and the owners’ circumstances.

New York law treats pets as important family members rather than just property. Judges decide on pet custody based on what is best for the pet’s well-being. They can look at factors like where the pet feels most loved, secure, and well-cared for. This means that, like child custody cases, the court can decide which home is best for the pet. New York is unique in this approach, giving judges the power to consider the pet’s best interests when making decisions about which party should have custody of the pet.

Remember that this process can be emotionally taxing. Pets often symbolize happy times in the relationship, and sharing custody might bring up past feelings. Approaching the situation with empathy and a focus on your pet’s best interest can help you manage some of these emotions.

Mediation is an excellent option for resolving pet custody issues. In Mediation, a neutral third party helps you and your ex to negotiate an arrangement that works for everyone involved, including the pet. This approach is less stressful and more flexible than going to court, where a judge who is unfamiliar with your pet’s specific needs will make the final decision. Debra Hamilton explained that she is regularly asked to assist with mediation’s when everything else in a couple’s divorce is settled except for the pet’s living arrangements.

Because of the emotional and financial issues that arise in pet custody matters, Collaborative Divorce is an excellent option as well. In a Collaborative Divorce, you work together with your attorneys and other professionals to reach an agreement that benefits everyone, including your pets. This process is less adversarial and more cooperative, allowing you to focus on creating a positive outcome for your entire family. By choosing Collaborative Divorce, you maintain control over the decisions affecting your lives and your pets’ lives.

Sharing custody of a family pet requires thoughtful planning and open communication. At Vacca Family Law Group, we understand the complexities involved in pet custody and are committed to helping you reach a fair and compassionate solution. Whether through Mediation or Collaborative Divorce, our goal is to ensure that both you and your beloved pets can move forward with the best possible arrangement. Prioritize your pet’s well-being and work towards a resolution that reflects the love and care they deserve.

If you are divorcing and have questions regarding pet custody, call us at (646) 502-8591 or contact us online to schedule your free introductory call. Our team of collaborative attorneys and mediators is here to provide tailored guidance to help you navigate your unique situation with confidence.Top of Form

Vacca Family Law Group is located at One Grand Central Place, 60 E. 42nd St., Suite 700, New York, NY 10165


A Better Divorce Podcast | Mediating Pet Disputes with Debra Hamilton