It is estimated that 70-80 million dogs and 74-96 million cats are owned in the United States. Approximately 37-47% of all households in the United States have a dog, and 30-37% have a cat. (Source: APPA). With those types of numbers, it makes it easy to see that problems can arise dealing with pets when families separate due to divorce. More and more, Courts are seeing people fight for custody of their four-legged companion much the same way they fight for custody of their children. Understanding how Tennessee Courts handle pets in a divorce is helpful in making sure they are protected and so that you can effectively advocate for your pet.
Ask almost any pet owner if their beloved pet is a family member and you will get a ‘yes’. However, Tennessee law considers pets as personal property. That means that unlike children, there is no test (like the best interest of the child test) to determine who gets custody (or even visitation). This can make a division of assets and liabilities difficult and often muddy the waters if one party uses another’s love and affection they have for their pets against them.
If the parties cannot agree on who gets the rights to the pet, a Court will make the decision. In that case, proof of who cares for the pet on a daily basis (who buys the food, makes sure they have clean water, takes them to the vet, gives the pet love and attention and whose work schedule and lifestyle may accommodate the pet better) will help to show the Court that you should be granted ownership of the pet.
Even worse, in cases of abuse (against one party or even the pet) securing ownership rights of the pet(s) can become paramount in a divorce. In such a case, obtaining documentation from the vet as to who cared for and treated the pet during the marriage may help. Certainly testimony regarding the treatment of the pets by the parties will be important for the Judge to make a determination. While pets are considered property, the Judge is human and placing a pet in a dangerous or abusive situation would be against common sense. Proof of abuse and/or neglect is paramount in this situation.
There are many issues couples go through during a divorce. If you have questions regarding divorce or making sure your pet is cared for during and after a divorce, make sure to contact a qualified Tennessee family law attorney who can assist you.