A pet custody agreement is exactly what it sounds like – a contract to assign custody for a family pet. Deciding the ownership of pets when a relationship ends can be fairly tricky. This legal agreement stipulates who retains ownership of pets, which party is responsible for financial upkeep, and whether or not there will be visitation time for the non-custodial ex-partner.
Unlike child custody, many courts can’t order custody of a pet during a divorce proceeding. Courts will often treat the pet as property and the person who purchased or pays the majority of the pet’s upkeep would likely be given full ownership. An agreement that both parties consult on and agree to is the best way to handle a situation where both spouses want to share time with the pet.
1. When a Pet Custody Agreement is Needed
A pet custody agreement can be drawn up at any time. It’s best to draw up the agreement when you don’t need it, as a safety precaution in case the relationship ends. After the end of a relationship it can be more difficult to agree to terms, especially if the split is less than amicable.
It can be enforced at the end of a relationship. This includes a long term relationship where the couple lived together but never legally married. It also includes cases of divorce. In some circumstances, the agreement might be a good idea for long term roommates who adopt or purchase a pet together.
If both parties have grown attached to the pet, this agreement can stipulate how the time is split so that neither party has to give up total ownership.
2. Consequences of Not Having a Pet Custody Agreement
In the event that a marriage or partnership ends with animosity, pets can sometimes get caught in the crossfire. Legally speaking, a pet is often viewed as an asset or property. Many times, spouses believe that they will retain ownership of the dog or cat, but that’s not necessarily how it will work without an agreement.
For instance, if you already have a pet prior to entering into a relationship, it seems safe to say that you’ll retain ownership. But if you don’t have proof that you purchased or licensed the animal, it might not be so clear cut. In fact, if your ex-spouse has records indicating that they paid for veterinary visits and other expenses, they may have a clearer case of ownership.
Here are a few consequences that can arise with no pet custody agreement in place:
- One spouse may demand the pet for spite. Divorces can be very volatile. There are cases where one spouse will take the pet simply to upset the other spouse. The spouse who relinquishes ownership would then have no rights to see the animal again.
- The family pet might be taken away from children. In some courts, children’s attachment to an animal will come into consideration when ruling on pet custody with no agreement. However, because the law generally recognizes pets as property, there’s no guarantee that the pet will stay with the children without an agreement.
- Pets may need to be put up for adoption after a divorce. Financial stress during and after a divorce is common. Often parties will need to sell family homes, may need to rent new places, and will be dealing with supporting separate households without the other spouse’s income. It’s not uncommon for families to need to give up beloved family pets because the financial stress is too great or because they have difficulty finding pet friendly rental properties.
- Pets who grew up together may be separated. In households with more than one pet, it’s not uncommon for spouses to split up the animals. This can be a good solution for each party but it may also be difficult for pets who grew up with pet siblings.
3. Common Uses of a Pet Custody Agreement
Pet custody agreements are legal documents very similar to child custody agreements. As most pet owners will tell you, their animal companions are more than property. Because each household is different, these contracts should be drawn up to best fit the specific interests of the parties and the pets involved. Often the document will include clauses about visitation or shared custody. Owners should carefully consider the pets’ needs, as well as their own. Some animals do better with structure and routine, so it may not be optimal to have them moved around too often.
Other clauses to consider within this agreement include:
- Financial Needs: Both parties should agree on how financial concerns are structured for the pet. This might include things like grooming and veterinary visits, as well as licensing and even the cost of walkers or pet daycare.
- Medical Oversight: Often one party takes the lead in taking care of veterinary visits. The contract would indicate which party would be in charge of making medical decisions for the pet. This is an important section because certain illnesses can become quite costly.
- Visitation: In cases where the pet remains permanently in one household, there may be a clause giving the other ex-spouse set days or hours to visit the pet or take the pet out to a park, etc.
Like any legal contract, it’s better to include more information than less. If the contract doesn’t specifically list an area of concern, it should be added to the contract to avoid possible issues.
4. What to Include in a Pet Custody Agreement
There are many clauses you can include when drafting a comprehensive pet custody agreement. Take into consideration your specific needs and the best interest of the pets. You may also find that the contract needs to be updated due to lifestyle changes or financial needs. The contract can be amended to reflect new circumstances provided both parties sign the new contracts and changes.
The following are some clauses and sections that may be included:
- Introduction. This section details the parties and the pets involved in the custody agreement. A straightforward case might discuss two parties and one pet. If there are multiple pets, the options would be to keep them in one household or split the pets between the two parties.
- Custody. This section would determine the primary household where the pet resides and may include joint custody if spouses agree to split time with the pet.
- Visitation. This section would stipulate the times and days that the non-custodial pet owner would be able to visit with the pet.
- Transportation. In cases where pet owners split custody, they can include a clause dictating which owner is responsible for transporting the animal. For instance, your clause might stipulate that the ex-spouse must pick up the pet and drop them off after a visit.
- Financial Responsibility. This dictates the portion of financial responsibility each of the parties take for the cost of pet maintenance.
- Major Decisions / Medical Decisions. This clause indicates who is allowed to make major decisions for the pet in a case of medical need or emergency. You may stipulate that both parties must come to agreement or you may decide that either party with the animal has the authority to make decisions on the other’s behalf.
- Limitations on Transfer. This section would discuss whether or not either spouse can transfer ownership of the pet. For example, you might stipulate that neither party can transfer the pet to a pound without the consent of the other party. This allows the secondary party to have the choice of assuming ownership before any outside party would be allowed to take the pet.
There are other clauses that you might add to this contract depending on your specific needs. Pet custody agreements should also be signed and notarized and kept on file.
Pet Custody Agreement Sample
The sample pet custody agreement below details an agreement between ‘Poppy Jennings’ and ‘Bobby Chung’ concerning who has ownership of the corgi, Puff. The agreement also describes how the two will handle pet care and responsibilities, insurance, and expenses.