Dogs, cats and other household animals have earned a special place in the American family. The creatures that were once considered pets have increasingly become full members of the family, as evidenced by the widespread use of terms like “fur babies.”
Unfortunately, the laws of most states – including Wisconsin – do not regard pets in the same way that pet owners do, and this can create problems in a divorce. In most cases, there is no legal mechanism for awarding pet custody if the two divorcing spouses cannot reach an agreement on their own.
How do courts regard animals?
In all but a handful of states, animals are treated the same as any other property. But because a pet cannot be divvied up, judges must settle disputes by awarding the pet to the spouse who can more convincingly prove ownership. Evidence might include shelter adoption paperwork, veterinary records and receipts for pet food and other necessary supplies.
Resolving a pet custody dispute in this manner is far from ideal, which is why some states have passed legislation to give pets greater consideration in divorce.
Laws addressing pet custody are rare – for now
Currently, only five states have laws instructing judges to make pet custody decisions in the pet’s best interest. This is presumably similar to the “best interests of the child” standard used in Wisconsin and most other states in child custody rulings. There have been individual court rulings in three additional states that utilized this principle, but those states have not passed specific pet custody laws.
It is quite possible that more states will pass or consider passing pet custody statutes. For the time being, however, judges in Wisconsin and many other states will continue to regard pets as property rather than as family members. Divorcing couples will need to find other ways to settle a pet custody dispute.
Reaching an agreement through mediation
In the absence of pet custody laws, some divorcing couples have spent time and money litigating ownership of a family dog or cat. A much better solution would be to create a customized agreement in divorce mediation.
Mediation is a form of alternative dispute resolution that is often faster, cheaper and less stressful than litigated divorce. Perhaps most importantly, it gives both parties much more control over the outcome because they decide the terms of the agreement together. A mediator is a neutral professional whose job is to facilitate discussion and help couples find common ground. Once they do reach an arrangement, it can be formalized in writing and submitted to a judge for approval. Most judges would sign off on a pet custody agreement, as long as it is agreeable to both parties and generally seems fair.
If you’re a pet owner about to go through divorce in Wisconsin, consider whether you and your spouse can cooperate well enough to participate in mediation. If so, you could avoid a potentially lengthy and expensive dispute over ownership of your beloved companion animal.