Most people have strong emotional ties to their pets and questions surrounding what will happen to them as part of a divorce often arise. Who gets to keep the cat? Can the court order shared custody of the dog and establish a parenting plan for the dog to go between the parties’ homes?
While people generally consider pets to be members of their family, the Massachusetts Probate and Family Court considers pets to be personal property and treats them as such in a divorce. This means they are subject to equitable division between the parties. The court can award ownership of a pet to one party or the other, as it can with any other item of personal property such as a house or a car, but there is currently no authority providing for the court to grant shared custody or a parenting plan for a pet. In the eyes of the court, this would be the equivalent of ordering shared custody of a kitchen table and having the parties trade the kitchen table back and forth.
While the court does not have the authority to establish custody and a parenting plan for a pet, parties wishing to do so can draft a written agreement for submission to the court as part of their divorce. Their agreement can detail a parenting plan for the pet, similar to a parenting plan established for children, and can include provisions for the payment of pet expenses, such as food, supplies and medical care. Parties can also establish who has decision-making authority in order to make difficult decisions, such as euthanasia.
There are a number of factors parties should consider in reaching agreements regarding their pets. The well-being of the animal should be considered, including the ability of each party to care for the pet and provide a stable home for the pet, and the stress animals can experience with big changes and a move to a new home.
Another important consideration for parties in deciding if shared custody or a parenting plan for the pet should be established is their level of civility with one another. Arrangements providing for shared care of a pet may not be the best option for situations in which the parties are not on civil terms as additional interaction and communication between the parties would be required.